Abuse and exploitation inherent to Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker program

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As scandals rock the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program, the federal government will begin a program wide review. Though the government hinted at it, they did not mention the endemic abuse that is inherent in the TFW program, and the global treatment of migrant workers. 

In the last month, the TFW program has made headlines after reports surfaced that migrant workers from China were being recruited to a coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia. Even though according to the B.C. Federation of Labour, B.C. lost over 10,000 jobs last month, and over 300 Canadians applied for these jobs, all were denied as they didn't have the right training or qualifications. One of the qualifications on the job description was that they be able to speak Mandarin.

Later, it was discovered that many of the 200 migrants given temporary work permits to these mines had to pay up to $12,500 in recruitment fees to get these coveted jobs in Canada. Though this is actually illegal, these practices are not uncommon. In some sectors, workers have to pay up to half of their expected wages to recruiter agencies before they even get their work permit. 

Though migrant workers should be entitled to the same work rights as other workers in Canada, sadly they are not. Nearly all of the lower skilled workers under the TFW, and half of the total number of work permits issued, are only allowed to work for the employer that brought them over. All of the workers in the Live-in Care Giver Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program are required to live in housing designated for them by the employer, and many provinces expressly deny workers from forming unions; abusive employers are easily able to prey on these isolated people. It is not uncommon for employers to force their employees to work 18 hour days for less than minimum wage, under the constant threat of deportation if they complain.

Canada was built with migrant labour, and though the Temporary Foreign Worker program leaves many pathways for abuse, it leaves few pathways to immigration. Lower skilled workers are only able to apply for permanent residency after two years in the abuse riddled Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP). The number of current workers in B.C. under the TFW program is up to 70,000, and nationally up from just over 100,000 in 2002, to over 300,000 in 2011 and growing. Our permanent immigration level has fluctuated around 140,000 in the last 10 years, while the TFW's have tripled. 

The abuses that take place within this program could be stopped through regulation, enforcement and meaningful policy change. Currently, the government is taking a step back and letting the "market" police itself, rather than having programs that carry out migration settlement and work in a comprehensive manner. 

Canada needs to step up its community building efforts, and support migration that supports the people that come here, help them find work and become a part of the fabric of Canadian society. In Manitoba, there is a comprehensive recruitment regulation policy that could be the model for the rest of the country.

In order to truly protect migrants and the people who are coming here, Canada should model its review through the lens of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the UN Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (CRMW), and the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

Canada has not signed either of these international conventions, and according to the ILO has violated the rights of over 100,000 seasonal agricultural workers in Ontario by forbidding them from joining a union.

I am thankful that Canada will review the Temporary Foreign Worker program. Maybe scrapping it -- and improving our permanent migration policy, and ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers -- would be a good start.


Brad Olson is a member of Canadian Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (CCSDP-Vancouver), a student at UBC, and Social Worker in the Downtown East Side. You can follow him on Twitter @b1olson





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