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A temporary foreign worker from Mexico pulls cranberries in to the corner of bog to harvest at the Maybog Cranberry farm in Richmond, B.C. on Oct. 26, 2014.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The federal government says it would like to give migrant workers more mobility and freedom by allowing them to work for any Canadian business approved to hire temporary foreign workers, within a specific sector such as agriculture, instead of being tied to just one employer.

The sector-specific open work permits would be available to farm workers and migrants employed in other low-wage jobs, which the government says would make them less susceptible to abuse.

The move, announced formally in The Canada Gazette, comes after a Globe and Mail investigation revealed how foreign nationals are exploited by recruiters and immigration consultants, whom many rely on to find them a job in Canada.

False promises: Foreign workers are falling prey to a sprawling web of labour trafficking in Canada

When temporary foreign workers are exploited in those jobs, or lose them, they can’t just go elsewhere. Their work permits limit them to one employer, so if they leave their jobs, they face possible expulsion from Canada for being here illegally.

The Globe’s investigation found that, out of desperation to stay in Canada, some temporary foreign workers go back to recruiters or immigration consultants, who charge exorbitant fees to get them another employer and a new work permit. Others simply go underground and work illegally at precarious jobs.

“People are often at their most vulnerable when they arrive in Canada,” said Mathieu Genest, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, who added they are "at particular risk of being exploited by unscrupulous consultants or employers.”

The government said it will take submissions from interested parties for 30 days before moving ahead. The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), one of several organizations that has been calling on the government for years to bring in open work permits, says it’s a big step in the right direction.

“This issue has been invisible for decades,” said Santiago Escobar, national representative for the UFCW. “You can see some important outcomes, due to the pressure and the awareness."

Mr. Escobar called it a “partial victory,” because workers would still be limited to one sector and, more critically, could only take another job if their new employer had already undergone what’s called a labour-market impact assessment, allowing them to hire foreign workers.

“You will have probably thousands of workers who want to leave their employer, but they won’t know how to find their new [preapproved] employer,” said Mr. Escobar, who suggests the government partner with the UFCW to connect workers with new jobs. Otherwise, he predicts, it will be a “complicated process.”

The UFCW and other organizations said their ultimate goal is for the government to level the labour-market playing field completely, by giving permanent-resident status upon arrival to anyone approved to work in Canada.

Marisol Bobadilla came to Canada as a temporary foreign worker in 2012, to work in a fish plant in the Maritimes. She said she was exploited and misled by a recruiter she turned to, after the only company she was permitted to work for was no longer allowed to employ foreign workers.

“When we come with only one working permit, it is very hard,” said Ms. Bobadilla, who said she sees the government’s proposal as a “big advantage” because people in her situation won’t be “scared anymore" of not being able to find another job and ending up without legal status in Canada, as she did.

Ms. Bobadilla has not seen her family in the Philippines, including her two children, for five years. She is applying to stay in Canada and work on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, but if she left the country she would not be allowed to return.

“We are desperate to get the work permit. Nobody wants to end up as undocumented, because we want to go back home to see our family so that is why we want our status so we can see our children back home. So it is a big help," she said.

Ms. Bobadilla’s case, however, also highlights increased delays in the system, which may hinder the new open work permit initiative. She has been waiting several months for her latest visa application to be processed.

Employers such as Chevonne Miller have also been waiting many months, for labour-market impact assessments to be finalized. Ms. Miller owns Centini Restaurant in Calgary, and said she has been trying since February to renew a temporary work permit, for a highly regarded foreign chef she’s had on staff since 2012.

“I would be all for employee mobility. I think all employees in Canada should have equal rights," Ms. Miller said, “But a lot of great people who want to come to Canada aren’t getting employers who want to hire them because it’s too difficult and too expensive.”

She can’t understand how vulnerable low-wage workers will be able to find alternative jobs, if employers can’t get timely approvals to hire them.

“You have to have faster processing,” Ms. Miller said. “The amount of work and expense for an alternate employer is a massive expense and it is taking longer and longer.”

The federal government said recently applications from employers who want to hire temporary foreign workers are up 25 per cent over last year because of increased demand. Those trying to employ people in the low-wage stream – the same workers who would be eligible for the new open-work permits – are now waiting 100 days for their applications to be processed.

Immigration lawyer Ravi Jain agrees the new open work permits will mean little to workers if well-meaning employers are still hamstrung by red tape.

“It’s really of no use to a foreign worker who is trying to flee an abusive situation," said Mr. Jain, who is the incoming representative on immigration issues for the Canadian Bar Association and a vocal critic of the role immigration consultants play in recruitment. Overall, though, he called the new initiative a “clever idea."

“What I find attractive ... is that foreign workers of this type may be more willing to report abuse if they can more easily leave and find new employment.”

He said the government should look into any employer whose foreign workers leave before the end of their contract, to get at another key problem revealed by The Globe’s investigation: recruiters or immigration consultants charging illegal fees to workers to find them a job, and sometimes sharing those fees with employers.

Mr. Jain said workers who are no longer tied to their initial employers could give evidence, to help authorities determine "if the employers are in any way linked to human trafficking or are getting kickbacks from non-lawyer consultants or recruiters, for facilitating the entry of low-skill workers for a fee who otherwise cannot get to Canada any other way.”

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