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Immigration Minister Marc Miller is planning reforms to Canada’s temporary foreign worker program to prevent exploitation of migrants under a system that ties their right to work in Canada to a single employer.

His intervention follows accusations from a United Nations special rapporteur that some temporary workers in Canada are “vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery.”

Facing a barrage of questions at the Commons immigration committee Tuesday, Mr. Miller said he was looking at ways to prevent abuse of migrant workers, including the relaxation of rules that make it hard for some to switch jobs.

The minister said he is willing to examine “a more open form, a more regional form of permit” that would ease some restrictions on temporary workers. For example, seasonal migrant workers picking fruits and vegetables could be allowed to move to other jobs within a particular area of the country.

After visiting Canada in August and September, Tomoya Obokata, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, expressed the view that “the agricultural and low-wage streams of the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme constitute a breeding ground” for this abhorrent activity.

The end-of-mission statement of the special rapporteur said he is “disturbed by the fact that certain categories of migrant workers are made vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery in Canada by the policies that regulate their immigration status, employment and housing in Canada.”

The report added that he is “particularly concerned that this work force is disproportionately racialized, attesting to deep-rooted racism and xenophobia entrenched in Canada’s immigration system.”

Mr. Miller said he did not endorse the rapporteur’s view that Canada is a breeding ground for slavery.

“I don’t know what descendants of former slaves would think of that characterization in relation to the abuse of their forefathers and foremothers,” he said.

But he said he was committed to taking action to stamp out abuse and bring in reforms to make working conditions better for temporary foreign workers.

He said farmers and other employers invest heavily in bringing temporary workers to Canada and are often proud of how they treat their employees, “like their family in their own words.”

“But on the margins, there is some abuse,” he said. “I think we have to recognize that and address it. There are some bad apples for sure, and we have to make sure that the incentives for people to behave badly are not in place.”

He added: “If there has been one bad actor, we’ve got to crack down on it – we’re Canada.”

Asked if changes need to be made to the system, in light of the UN special rapporteur’s findings, Mr. Miller replied “well obviously things can’t remain the way they are,” saying that he found some cases that had been highlighted profoundly disturbing.

He said his department is looking into further changes to allow vulnerable workers with employer-specific permits to change jobs faster.

At the committee meeting, NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said action was long overdue and migrant workers tied to a single employer were reluctant to speak out about abuse because it was difficult to find another employer under the immigration rules.

She asked whether migrants who come here to work on temporary permits should be given a clear route to permanent residency when they arrive.

Mr. Miller said the government was looking at reforms to allow construction workers, who are in short supply and needed to build more homes, to find a path to settling in Canada.

But he said he was not in favour of giving all temporary migrants an automatic route to citizenship, or abolishing closed work permits altogether.

“I don’t believe that in the brush stroke of a pen that we can do away with closed permits, nor would that be an ideal solution,” he said.

The UN special rapporteur’s report said many workers are put off complaining because they live in employer-provided accommodation, and face homelessness if they lose their job.

“Even where workers are not required to reside in employer-provided housing, they have limited affordable alternatives, as many employers are based in remote locations and there is an overall shortage of affordable housing in Canada,” his statement said.

Last week, Mr. Miller, in announcing that the federal government is freezing Canada’s targets for permanent residents at 500,000 in 2026, said he was also looking at adjusting temporary resident numbers so they are sustainable.

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