Migrant workers speak up in Montreal

Community News & Features Dec 21, 2018 at 5:25 pm
Photo credits: Jaskaran Gill, CCR Migrants Forum

Photo credits: Jaskaran Gill, CCR Migrants Forum

Reflections on the Canadian Council for Refugees Migrant Forum

By Jesson Reyes

Last November 25 representatives from the Migrants Resource Centre Canada (MRCC) attended the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) Migrant Forum held in Montreal, Quebec. It was a full-day meeting of several stakeholders working to advance the rights and dignity of migrant workers in Canada. In the forum were at least 35 migrant workers plus community advocates, academics and representatives from a government agency.

CCR’s aim is to create a space for sharing and learning among migrant workers, service providers and migrant rights advocates. The forum was part of the two-day CCR Fall consultation that looks at the issues and trends in Canadian immigration policies.

As MRCC representatives, we attended the forum to expand our knowledge about current issues of migrant workers and what services are missing in order to better assist these individuals as they continue to live in precarious situations across Canada. We also aimed to build connections with other community organizations who are in the fight to bring these issues to light, pushing for better working conditions for migrant workers, access to social services, and a clear pathway towards permanent residence. Most importantly, we attended with the hope to hear migrant workers tell their stories and encourage them to be agents for change for the future of temporary foreign workers in this country.
The workshops we attended were rich with lessons from experiences of both workers and advocates present.

MRCC logo1. On agricultural workers

When the average Canadian or permanent resident walks through our local grocery store, we seldom think about who has grown the fruit and vegetables we consume. This past weekend we got to see the faces and hear stories of a few migrant workers from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras who do just that. Many men and women sign contracts from their home countries with the lure of wages “higher” than what they receive at home, only to face the harsh reality of what happens once they arrive in Canada. As temporary foreign workers, most agricultural workers have limited to no access at all to health care. They live in appalling housing conditions (with some units holding up to 20 people), are paid lower than minimum wage, and forced to perform unsafe work without any proper training for the prevention of injuries. Since these people are in precarious situations, it becomes difficult to mobilize, as threats of deportation loom over them. One man spoke of a friend who had signed a contract to work in agriculture but was transferred to do construction. When he found out that workers in this industry were paid more, he demanded to be given a raise. Unfortunately, the employer has the upper hand, telling him if he continued to press for increased wages, he would be fired, and eventually sent back to his home country.

The easiest solution to these problems would be to mobilize migrant workers to come together to challenge the system. Unfortunately, many of them fear losing their jobs, as they are the sole financial provider for their families at home. Of the four agricultural workers who attended the forum, each had a story to tell. We can only hope that it encourages others to be just as brave to demand that their rights be respected in a country that prides itself on human rights. Moreover, there needs to be more collaboration between everyone involved, including grassroots organizations, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) who issue the work permits, employers, recruitment agencies, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), lawyers and the migrant workers themselves. We all have a role to play in ensuring the safety and security of the people who work tirelessly to feed us who are privileged enough to have a permanent home.

Canadian-Counsel-for-Refugees-logo2. Caregiver issues

Caregivers mainly from Quebec discussed their experiences under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. Among the issues that were highlighted were the requirements for each worker to be granted permanent residence through the Caregiver Pathways. In Quebec, part of the requirement is the French Language Requirement which could be a challenge for some English-speaking caregivers. Other workers shared their experiences about dealing with recruitment agencies and employers who have charged them a big amount of money for them to work in Canada.

In the workshop, organizers from PINAY provided responses to most of the questions raised by the caregivers. An immigration lawyer was also in the discussion who acted as a resource person. Caregivers from Quebec and other Canadian provinces continue to come to Canada to work as domestic workers and land permanent residence. While the program and its requirements change over time, the instability and the vulnerability that comes from being a temporary worker remain intact. The workshop was concluded with a commitment from the advocates and the caregivers to continue to organize for their rights and welfare.

3. Support services for migrant workers

Although there are some grassroots organizations and local non-profit organizations working to service migrant workers, what is lacking is the funding and manpower to get more done. Current initiatives include one-on-one consultations to assess one’s needs. These individuals are then referred to services that will assist them through their issues. For example, many migrant workers are forced to apply for asylum as there is no clear pathway to permanent residence for low-skilled workers. As a result, many of them need legal representation and thus are referred to Legal Aid, where they will work with a free lawyer. Other services include a 24-hour/7 days a week hotline that is available to migrant workers for use in emergency situations. This is often used when a deportation warrant is issued. Some organizations also provide free workshops and training to inform workers of their rights in Canada. Although the services are limited, in some cases when employers learn that their employees are accessing such programs, threats to terminate their contracts loom over their heads. Moreover, working in collaboration with employers to promote the well-being of migrant workers for the success of their workplace may be a way to combat this.4

4. Temp. agencies and recruitment issues

Advocates from CCR, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), FCJ Refugee Centre, Immigrant Workers Centre and the Migrants Resource Centre Canada took part in this workshop to discuss the current trends and issues regarding temp agencies and recruitment agencies that are conducting work for migrant workers.

Advocates and workers discussed the lack of a national policy to curb the illegal and unscrupulous recruitment practices that are taking place in different provinces. Some provincial legislation was discussed such as the Manitoba’s Worker Recruitment and Protection Act (WRAPA) which is considered as the best practice for enforcing penalties on recruitment agencies who violate the law. The said legislation also holds the employers accountable in situations where penalties have to be paid back to the affected workers. In the workshop, some advocates shared the transnational dynamic of recruitment and raised the question of a transnational campaign to ensure both sending and receiving countries comply with acceptable recruitment standards in implementing their labor migration program.

According to the latest immigration report conducted by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada 78,788 Temporary Migrants were brought into the country, which is a slight increase to the previous intake. While Canada continues to rely on temporary migrants to fill certain jobs, it has not had very effective protection mechanisms in the construction and engineering industries to ensure that immigration and labor rights of workers are met and fulfilled.
The CCR Migrants forum is an important venue to discuss and collectively analyze the work of migrant justice communities with the workers taking the lead and at the forefront of the work.

The Migrants Resource Centre Canada acknowledges all migrant workers who are courageously asserting their rights to fair labor, immigration and human rights policies and practices in Canada.

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(Jesson Reyes is Coordinator of the Migrant Resource Centre of Canada. The Migrant Resource Centre Canada aims to improve the lives of migrant and immigrant workers through advancing their rights and dignity while working and living in Canada. To learn more about MRCC, visit www.migrantsresourcecentre.ca)