A photo of members of Migrante Ontario marching for migrant worker rights.
Members of Migrante Ontario marching for migrant worker rights. Credit: Migrante Canada Credit: Migrante Canada

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees”

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees?”
-Woody Guthrie; Deportees

Danilo DeLeon did everything right. He came to Canada legally as a temporary foreign worker in 2009 and he has worked hard ever since. Not only has he been employed as a cleaner and paid taxes and sent money home to support his children in the Philippines, but this exemplary worker has also become a tireless human rights advocate, serving as chairperson for the national human rights group Migrante Canada.

Despite (or perhaps because of?)his brave advocacy, DeLeon now faces the threat of being sent back to the Philippines, where he would likely be in danger of government repression. For some reason his work permit was not extended, and he has been ordered to leave Canada. While he has appealed that order and is currently able to remain here, his situation is dire, and it is not uncommon among the hundreds of thousands of temporary workers (over 312,000 in 2021) who enter Canada every year. Canada’s message to temporary workers is too often, “Thanks for your work. Now get out.”

And the number of Canadian residents who face the kind of harsh bureaucratic punishment threatening DeLeon would surprise many readers. Amanda Aziz, staff lawyer for Vancouver’s Migrant Workers’ Centre told me in late September that nearly half a million people in Canada (including temporary workers and family members) could and should benefit if the federal government regularizes their situation by granting them permanent resident status.

Although the COVID crisis led Canada to experiment with a program to provide some temporary workers in health care with a pathway to permanent residence, most migrant workers documented or undocumented, face expectations that they will work under exploitive and often dangerous conditions as long as it suits Canadian employers, and then disappear back to their countries of origin.

Particularly diabolical are the provisions in Canada’s current arrangements for admitting temporary workers that tie them to a specific employer, thus increasing worker vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

A recent study in my home province, BC, found that temporary workers were subject to horrifying abuse. There is no reason to think that temporary workers in other provinces are treated any better. The BC study, done by the Migrant Workers Centre, reported temporary workers in BC were subjected to forms of financial abuse including excessive work hours (53.3 per cent), unpaid wages (46.7 per cent), payment of a recruitment fee (36.7 per cent), being forced to work in contravention of work permit condition (26.7 per cent), wrongful or early termination (16.7 per cent), and being forced to repay a portion of wages to their employer (16.7 per cent).

Forms of psychological abuse included verbal abuse (50 per cent), threats of termination and deportation (23.3 per cent), coercion and/or pressure to get the applicant to do something against their will (16.7 per cent), employer restriction of the worker’s movement and activities after work (16.7 per cent), retaliation by employer or threats of not being hired back after submitting complaints against the employer (10 per cent), employer requiring the worker to live with them but not providing a private and safe living space (10 per cent), and intimidation by employer upon termination (10 per cent).

Workers also went through different forms of physical and sexual abuse, including, physical violence by the employer (16.7 per cent), exposure to chemical pesticides without personal protection equipment (6.7 per cent), being forced to perform physically-demanding work while injured in contravention of medical advice (6.7 per cent), being forced or coerced to perform sexual acts (6.7 per cent), repeated sexual assault by the employer (3.3 per cent), and being forced to send pictures of a sexual nature by text message to employer (3.3 per cent).

In addition to all these dangerous and humiliating abuses, temporary foreign workers too often pay with their lives for their Canadian paycheck. When Garvin Yapp, 57, of Jamaica, was fatally injured this year during the operation of farm equipment at the VanBerlo farm in Norfolk County, Ontario, he joined a long list of temporary foreign workers injured and killed at Canadian worksites. While workers who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents encounter unsafe work conditions or abusive employers, they can at least take advantage of real, if imperfect legal options like complaints to labour boards and safety enforcement bodies, temporary workers, knowing their employer controls their ability to remain and work in Canada, are understandably loathe to risk a complaint. So, they are more likely to keep working and hope they won’t be one of the fatalities.

A recent StatsCan report shows that immigrant and visible minority workers had higher rates of Covid infection and mortality than the Canadian average, and they often work in high-risk settings like agriculture and construction. Seyed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change reminded us in August that: “The migrant farm worker program is effectively a human rights catastrophe. Every day we hear about injuries, every month we hear about deaths. There have been three deaths that we know of just in the last week,” he said in August.

Canada is not alone in working temporary foreign workers to death. A recent United Nations study reports that this particularly ugly form of abuse is widespread globally.

The call for sweeping resident status regularization has recently been voiced by many social justice and worker advocacy groups. Thousands of workers and their allies rallied across Canada on September 18, calling for across the board regularization.

“We have a historic opportunity right now to fix a wrong that has been going on for many, many years,” the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change’s Seyed Hussan, one of the organizers of the September 18 demonstrations, told the Canadian Press that day.

“We want to make sure that parliament does not in any way delay,” he said. “We believe that equality is equality, any exclusion is discrimination, so each and every migrant worker or refugee, student and undocumented person should be included.”

A cumbersome and structurally racist system has historically made it difficult to impossible for temporary workers to secure permanent residence status in Canada. While the federal government has tinkered at the edges of reform recently, many observers see what has been accomplished so far in terms of reform as too little, too late. Count me as one of those observers. I have covered temporary foreign worker issues for decades now, and the deaths, illnesses and injuries keep repeating. The Canadian legal structure itself makes workers vulnerable to abuse. It is past time for the kind of genuine and comprehensive changes that workers’ groups and human rights advocates have been urging for decades to be implemented.

And no one in Canada should imagine we are not complicit in the abuses endured by temporary foreign workers. We eat the food foreign workers plant and harvest, and they are often the ones providing us with lifesaving care when we age and fall sick. We owe them for all they do for us, and we owe them, in all decency, active solidarity when they ask for a fair deal.

If you agree, please let the prime minister know you want all workers, refugees, students and undocumented persons granted permanent resident status immediately. You can reach the PM at [email protected]. or at [email protected]. After you email Justin, please send a similar message to your own MP. You can find their email address here https://ccrweb.ca/en/contact-your-mp.

Tom Sandborn

Tom Sandborn lives and writes on unceded Indigenous territory in Vancouver. He is a widely published free lance writer who covered health policy and labour beats for the Tyee on line for a dozen years,...