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17 Sep 2023

Canada: UN Expert alleges migrant workers are vulnerable to abuse, & advocates protest for reform of the work-permit system

At the start of September 2023, The UN’s Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, released a statement following the end of a 14-day official visit to Canada that alleged he was ‘deeply disturbed’ by migrant worker abuse in the country. Obokata visited Ottawa, Moncton, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

The statement begins by noting that the country should quickly ratify and implement a number of vital international treaties aimed to prevent forced labour, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, among other key conventions.

The statement notes that the Rapporteur is ‘disturbed’ by the vulnerability of migrant workers to modern slavery in Canada. The statement particularly critiques the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP). Workers entering Canada on this programme are vulnerable for a number of reasons, the statement alleges, including the fact that the migrants cannot change employers and face deportation if they do so, due to the closed work permit system. The statement also notes the prevalence of dept bondage due to the payment of extortionate recruitment fees to brokers in countries of origin. The statement also highlights how the power differential between the employer and migrant worker is catalysed further by the latter’s dependence on employer-provided accommodation, meaning many face homelessness if they lose their employment.

Outside of the TFWP, the statement notes that international students, asylum-seekers, and undocumented workers are also highly vulnerable to abuse. The statement also outlines the risk of abuse experienced by homeless persons, Indigenous Peoples, formerly incarcerated individuals, persons with disabilities, and people of African descent.

The exploitation of migrants workers includes excessive working hours, occupational health and safety concerns, low wages, no overtime pay, denied access to healthcare, sexual harassment, intimidation, poor living conditions, a lack of privacy, and violence, among other issues at the hands of their employers. The statement also alleges most migrant workers are unaware of the Government’s complain mechanisms, or are afraid to report abuses due to the risk of retaliation. Access to remedy and justice is thus severely limited for ‘most workers’.

Later in September 2023, the Toronto Star reported the Montreal-based Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers filed an application for a class-action lawsuit in Quebec Superior Court to ban work permits that bind migrant workers to specific employers. The lawsuit alleges closed work-permits are rooted in discrimination.

Radio News Jamaica also reported in September 2023, following the release of the Rapporteur’s statement, that the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change in Ontario called for the government to do more to protect migrant worker rights.

Later in September 2023, the Farmer’s Forum reported that Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers pushed back on the allegations of abuse, citing the prevalence of government audits and inspections to regulate employers hiring seasonal workers.

On 17th September, CBC reported that migrant workers and supporters protested in Toronto, calling for the government to grant permanent residency status for all migrants and undocumented workers.