Montreal, Canada – Canada’s temporary foreign worker programmes are a “breeding ground” for modern forms of slavery, a United Nations expert has warned, about a year after Jamaican farmworkers in the province of Ontario denounced their mistreatment.
The UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, said on Wednesday that he was “deeply disturbed by the accounts of exploitation and abuse shared” with him by migrant workers during a two-week fact-finding mission to Canada.
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“Employer-specific work permit regimes, including certain Temporary Foreign Worker Programs (TFWPs), make migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation,” Obokata said.
His comments come after a group of Jamaican farmworkers sent a letter to the country’s labour minister in August of last year likening their treatment on two Ontario farms to “systematic slavery”.
“We are treated like mules and punished for not working fast enough,” they said.
“We are exposed to dangerous pesticides without proper protection, and our bosses are verbally abusive, swearing at us. They physically intimidate us, destroy our personal property, and threaten to send us home.”
For years, rights advocates have called on the Canadian government to address systemic issues in its temporary foreign worker programmes, arguing that the schemes leave labourers open to abuse and with little recourse to get redress.
Between 50,000 and 60,000 foreign agricultural labourers come to Canada each year on temporary permits to work in a range of sectors, from the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to meat processing.
Foreign workers brought to Canada through the so-called Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) – a scheme that allows Canadian employers to hire temporary migrant workers from Mexico and 11 countries in the Caribbean – can have jobs for up to eight months in the year.
Yet the workers, many of whom have been coming to Canada for decades, say they are forced to live in crowded, substandard housing and work long hours in unsafe conditions. They also say they face the threat of deportation or other retribution if they raise complaints.
Last year, the office of Canada’s employment minister told Al Jazeera that Ottawa in 2021 set aside $38.1m (52 million Canadian dollars) over three years to boost support for migrant labourers and is working to ensure all workers are protected.
“We know that temporary foreign workers need better information about their rights, and better health and safety protections,” then-Minister Carla Qualtrough said in a statement.
The Canadian government also has said it is looking into pathways to permanent residence for foreign workers and international students.
But rights groups have urged Canada to immediately grant permanent immigration status to all temporary foreign workers and other migrants in the country, saying such a move would offer them the best protection against possible abuses.
Demonstrations demanding “status for all” will take place across the country later this month.
We are facing an inequality crisis with housing, climate change and soaring bills. The hardest hit include migrants. Justice for all requires #StatusForAll.
On Sep 17, unite our movements. It's time.
Organize actions across the country.https://t.co/UZKC7BaghW
— Migrant Rights Network #StatusForAll (@MigrantRightsCA) July 17, 2023
On Wednesday, Obokata, the UN special rapporteur, acknowledged that Canada has put some measures in place “to reduce the risk of forced and child labour”.
But he urged the government to “offer a clear pathway to permanent residency for all migrants, to prevent the recurrence of abuses”.
“Canada must do more to implement these measures to address modern slavery, by protecting workers’ rights and tackling discrimination that enables exploitation,” he said.
Syed Hussan, executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, welcomed Obokata’s findings.
“The United Nations Rapporteur has yet again stated what we all know, and migrants have been saying for decades – a two-tier system of immigration … breeds exploitation, exclusion and violence,” Hussan said in a statement.
“All migrants, including undocumented people, migrant students, workers and refugees, must have permanent resident status to protect themselves and ensure a fair society.”