Defending migrant workers in British Columbia

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Natalie Drolet is the executive director and staff lawyer for the Migrant Workers' Centre BC (MWC), a non-profit organization that provides free legal assistance to migrant workers in British Columbia, and engages in public legal education and policy advocacy. Scott Neigh interviews her about the work of the MWC to challenge the injustices that migrant workers in Canada face under current immigration and labour policies.

Migrant workers are people from other countries, most commonly countries in the Global South, who are admitted to Canada for a limited period of time purely to work, under legal conditions that give them far fewer rights than workers who are permanent residents or citizens. The details have varied over time, and are moderately different from program to program today. Yet certain central elements are common across most classes of migrant workers, and haven't changed a whole lot in decades.

The admission of a migrant worker to Canada is tied to them maintaining employment with one specific employer. If they are no longer in that job, they can be deported, so they don't have the option that most workers have of quitting and finding a new job when faced with a terrible boss. Many migrant workers have no right at all to apply for permanent residency even after their term of employment, and those that do must meet strict requirements. Both of these things give employers tremendous power over the lives of migrant workers.

As well, their jobs are often covered by fewer employment protections than most workers in Canada. When they arrive, they have no way to know what rights and resources they are entitled to. And even in circumstances where they are protected under the law, the great power in the hands of employers means that in practice it can be very difficult to have those rights respected and enforced. As today's guest discusses, migrant workers are very vulneralbe to abuse and exploitation.

Moreover, to even get the jobs in the first place, migrant workers are generally dependent on a recruiter to connect them with an employer in Canada. Migrant workers are commonly defrauded by recruiters. Even when fraud isn't an issue, it is often prohibitively expensive, and many migrant workers have to pay huge sums of money, often going into considerable debt, to get their very low-wage job in Canada.

The MWC has been around since 1986, when it was founded by two law students at the University of British Columbia. From the beginning, the majority of its board of directors have always been current and former migrant workers. Originally, the group was called the West Coast Domestic Workers Association, and it focused specifically on migrant domestic workers – who are mostly women, in the current era mostly from the Philippines, whose positions in Canada involve caring for children or older adults. Today, however, the Centre's mandate encompasses all classes of migrant workers.

Key demands from the organization have always included open work permits, which would not be tied to a specific employer, and accessible pathways to permanent residency. The current rules which allow some migrant domestic workers to apply for permanent residency are set to expire in November 2019. It is not clear what the federal Liberal government intends to replace them with, so the MWC is currently advocating for a new program with open work permits and permanent residency for all caregivers. They have also been very active in pushing the NDP government in BC to strengthen provisions in a variety of contexts related to migrant workers. They are particularly pleased that the province passed legislation in late 2018 that will more tightly govern recruiters and help prevent fraud, and the Centre expects to be busy as the associated regulations roll out in 2019. The MWC also sometimes takes up particular legal cases in ways meant to contribute to broader change, as with a recent instance where they worked on a case with two caregivers who were challenging the fact that they were regaulry paid for only 8 hours of their 24-hour shifts.

Image: Used with permission of the Migrant Workers' Centre BC.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

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