Surge in migrant labour makes reform imperative

Posted by admin on Feb 9th, 2012

Toronto Star. Published On Thu Feb 09 2012

Sadly, it took a tragedy on the scale of the traffic accident in Hampstead, Ont., which claimed 11 lives, to bring some attention to the plight of migrant workers in Canada. There have been a number of stories this week outlining the massive scale of the migratory labour system that brought these workers from Peru, and the difficult conditions they face. But before the media moves on to other issues, or the story’s focus narrows to traffic safety regulations (important as these may be), it is essential that Canadians take a moment to consider what those numbers and conditions really mean — in other words, to wake up to the realities that tens of thousands of migrant workers face. Two broad areas of concern stand out.

First, those numbers point to a fundamental shift in Canadian immigration and labour market policy. Over the last decade, the use of migrant labour systems has grown astronomically. By 2009, more people were coming into Canada under temporary foreign worker programs (a staggering total of about 280,000) than under the “regular” immigration system.

This growth has not been driven solely by industries that have traditionally relied on migrant workers, particularly domestic service and agriculture. For instance, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) has expanded steadily — but other industries, including food-processing, tourism, fast-food and especially resource extraction, depend increasingly on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. And Canada’s fastest developing areas — especially the oilsands of nortyhern Alberta — are also drawing greater numbers of migrant workers.

Not surprisingly, the source of migrant workers is also diversifying. The SAWP, for instance, used to draw its labour from the Caribbean and especially Mexico. But in recent years, the government has been widening the reach of the SAWP and other temporary worker programs at a dizzying pace. Indeed, until reading about Monday’s crash, there was little awareness even among experts in the field that Peru was sending migrant workers to Canadian farms.

Second, while media reports have noted how these workers face long hours, low pay and rough job conditions, there has been much less discussion of why these problems are so pervasive in the SAWP and other temporary foreign worker programs. The most basic issue is that the highly precarious status of migrant workers in Canada — they are hardly in a position to exercise their existing rights, let alone demand a better deal. Indeed, their work contracts are their sole grounds for being in Canada, making them doubly dependent on their employer — for both their job and their toehold in our country.

Fear of deportation is thus a fact of life for these migrants. There is added insecurity for workers in seasonal industries like farming, as once their contracts are up there is no guarantee of a new contract the next year, even if they have performed well in the system for more than a decade.

Further disadvantages are structured into the programs. They require that workers sign contracts before they leave for Canada, often for minimum wages. The government then gouges the workers brazenly, making them pay into Canadian employment insurance and pension programs but barring them from collecting benefits.

Regulation of working conditions is an even bigger problem. Migrant workers in agriculture are not covered by most of Ontario’s standard basic regulations regarding hours of work, overtime pay and holiday pay.

Recent studies have shown that the workers are rarely informed of the rules, let alone given training on health and safety and other key workplace matters. Corners also get cut on housing, food and transportation for the migrants.

It is far too early to make definitive statements about the role of such problems in Monday’s crash, or about any of the particular conditions experienced by the migrant workers who perished in this accident. However, Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) is calling for a coroner’s inquest to investigate all factors related to this tragedy and make recommendations to make sure it does not happen again.

J4MW is also demanding a that both levels of government make a serious effort to reform the system to ensure that migrant workers are protected at work. Queen’s Park should modernize and enforce employment standards, health and safety and workers’ compensation policies for migrant workers, particularly those in agriculture. Ottawa must provide permanent residency to migrant workers, so that they can work and live without the constant fear of deportation.

J4MW and other advocacy groups have made similar calls for inquests and reforms in the past, after a number of other tragedies have claimed the lives of migrant workers both on the job and in transit. But these calls have gone unheeded.

It took a major campaign by migrant domestic workers, with aid from a range of activists and an investigative series by the Star, to win some significant reforms to the Live-In Caregiver Program. The problems that migrant workers face will continue unless we take similar bold steps to ensure there is respect and justice for those who do essential work for our communities.

Monday’s tragedy is a wake-up call for Canadians to the realities of thousands of people who been out of sight and out of mind for too long.

David Goutor is an assistant professor in the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University. Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers (, a grassroots collective of community, labour and migrant activists.

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