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Opinion I was bumped from speaking to the House. I need to say this: Migrant workers need better rights

Teta Bayan is a migrant worker in North York from the Philippines and a member of Caregivers Action Centre.

Last week, I was supposed to speak to a House of Commons committee on the abuse we migrant workers face – but I couldn't.

I was able to get time off – which is difficult to do, for most migrant workers – and I showed up for a video-conference link from Toronto. I waited. Before I got my chance, the committee in Ottawa was suspended. I was bumped down a list – and others, who were lower on the list, were given the opportunity to speak. Why? Because the House of Commons was arguing about Prime Minister's use of force in the House.

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I was told the group would resume to hear me but they never returned.

If I had been allowed to speak, here is what I would have said to the Parliamentarians: Migrant workers deserve permanent immigration status so that we have the same rights as everyone else.

Closed work permits – which means we can only work for the employer listed on our permit – create apartheid conditions. Tied-down work permits take away our freedom to say "no" and "enough" to our unfair working environment.

If we quit a bad job or are fired for asking for our rights, our lives are hell. Even if we find a new employer, and can somehow stay in the country, getting new permits costs thousands of dollars and takes up to a year. During this year we are not legally allowed to work.

When we are working, our wages are often stolen. Most migrant workers work 12 to 13 hours a day, but few of us get paid for more than eight at minimum wage. Some get paid a much lower rate. For example, over two years that can work out to $15,000 in lost wages for a caregiver.

Employers often take advantage of us. I got sick while taking care of an elderly couple with dementia and Alzheimer's disease day and night. I asked for sick leave and my employer asked me to pay an agency $25 an hour for a relief caregiver. My salary is $11.25 an hour. I asked for help from my agency, but instead of support I was fired.

Under the previous government, as Liberal Immigration, Citizenship and Multiculturalism critic John McCallum introduced a private members bill to have the agencies listed on the permits – tying migrant workers to potentially abusive agencies. Since coming to power and becoming Immigration Minister, Mr. McCallum has been touring the country trying to put forward the idea again. This is not the solution.

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Recruiters exploit us, too. Migrant workers pay between $5,000 and $15,000 to get a job in Canada. We take loans to pay these fees. We are afraid to ask for our rights here because if we lose our jobs how will we pay back our loans? Sometimes when we arrive here, the job we were promised doesn't exist. And then we are forced by the agencies to work without papers, which means we live in daily fear of detentions and deportations. We have almost no rights, and we are constantly looking over our shoulder wondering who is coming.

Canada's laws support abuse. Every month, the Caregivers Action Centre meet at least one caregiver who reports being sexually and physically abused but can't leave her job because of Canada's immigration laws.

Migrant workers pay taxes for the services Canadians enjoy but we don't get full healthcare, employment insurance, pensions or social benefits such as subsidized housing or education. Migrant workers, especially agricultural workers can be deported when we fall sick or are injured.

The vicious cycle of abuse, exploitation and precariousness that we experience can only be fixed by setting us free from tied work permits and giving us our immigration status upon arrival in Canada. It's time to make a real change in the history of this country. The power is in Parliament's hands to untie and free us.

Recently the Canadian government apologized to the South Asian community for turning back the immigrant ship Komagata Maru in 1914. I don't want my family to wait 100 years for an apology for the injustices that are being committed against my sisters and brothers.

Canada should not repeat the same mistakes made in the past. Together, we are stronger.

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