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Indentured immigrants: Recent failures to curb migrant exploitation in Canada

Poorly conceived regulations and lack of government oversight are enabling the exploitation of Canadian newcomers

Canadian PoliticsLabourHuman Rights

Canadian immigration policy is failing to protect migrant workers from exploitation. Photo by Jeff Nelson/Flickr.

Once a year, Hina Sato, a Canadian newcomer, must pay her employer thousands of dollars to keep her job and stay in the country. Last year, Sato’s employer offered to sponsor her for a work permit under the condition that she pay back a great deal of her earnings via cash or cheque, thus eliminating a paper trail. If Sato had not accepted the offer, she would have had to leave Canada when her visa expired.

Sato’s experience aligns with the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of indentured labour: a kind of forced labour or debt bondage prevalent in North America in the 19th century, involving a person who voluntarily agrees to work to pay off debt. In this case, Sato’s debt was constructed by her employer, a crime made possible by poorly conceived regulations and lack of government oversight. Speaking with Canadian Dimension in a phone interview, Sato said that most of her friends are in similar situations, but was unable to disclose details.

Recent investigations suggest that employees can be illegally charged up to $60,000 for a visa sponsorship.

With immigration targets set at record numbers, migrant exploitation will be more widespread in the coming years, enabled by flaws in current immigration policy and a lack of government oversight that make the sort of exploitation endured by Sato possible.

The privatization of immigration

Employers gain power over newcomers’ ability to immigrate through the federal government’s Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS). CRS involves the acquisition of points to determine eligibility for permanent residence. Newcomers incur points from categories such as education level, work experience, and arranged employment in Canada.

According to Fay Faraday, social justice lawyer and professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, a valid job offer, like the one given to Sato, accounts for 600 of the possible 1,200 points needed for permanent residence. This means that private employers often decide who gets to migrate.

“Having an offer for a permanent job is the single biggest allotment of points for the point system for immigration into Canada,” explained Faraday over a phone interview.

Under threat that their ability to migrate will be taken away, employees often tolerate exploitation.

“I know one person who suffered short term memory loss and other mental health problems because her employer made her work so much,” recalled Sato. “Everyone knows this situation is unfair, but we just hang in there so we can get PR [permanent residence].”

Desperate for sponsorship, newcomers often pay recruiters to find employment. This recruitment process can not only be costly, but it can lead to employment characterized by exploitation. Some recruiters have amassed fortunes through fraudulent practices, such as Kuldeep Bansal, an immigration consultant in Surrey, British Columbia.

Bansal charged foreign workers up to $15,000 to find them work in convenience stores, which later refused to hire them. Bansal owns $15 million in real estate, including a golf course in Surrey.

“Some people try to get visa support via an agency,” explained Sato. “They pay money to an agent who tells them about a restaurant, for example, that is willing to sponsor them. If I could offer any advice to newcomers, it would be to find a place to work on your own. Decide if the business is good for you or not, but do not trust an agent.”

In May 2019, the government amended the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) to give Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) the ability to offer open work permits to exploited migrant workers like Sato. The new Open Work Permit For Vulnerable Workers program allows exploited workers to leave jobs and stay in Canada while looking for a new sponsor. This initiative is flawed for three reasons: no ease of access, inadequate penalization, and no guarantee of new employment.

No ease of access

The Government of Canada website supplies resources to help newcomers understand and protect their rights as workers. However, at the time of writing, there was no mention of the Open Work Permit For Vulnerable Workers in a key eight page document titled, “Temporary Foreign Workers: Your Rights Are Protected.” What’s more, the document is only available in English, French, and Spanish, meaning other language speakers could have difficulty accessing it.

As it stands now, to view information about the Open Work Permit For Vulnerable Workers, users must navigate through a labyrinth of web pages that even fluent English speakers would find confusing.

As reported by a representative of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), in 2020, the government invested $6 million for outreach to migrant workers. These funds were directed at migrant worker support organizations, and will hopefully have an impact on the visibility of the Open Work Permit For Vulnerable Workers.

Inadequate penalization

Despite difficulties accessing the permit, 918 applications for the program have been received, and 672 issued across the country since 2019, according to data obtained from IRCC via email. However, as stated by Faraday, the number of permits issued does not represent the number of abuses taking place, and certainly not the number of abusers. In fact, it seems few employers have faced serious repercussions.

According to a spokesperson from ESDC, the government conducts an average of 3,000 inspections per year into employers using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. However, as seen on the IRCC website in January 2021, from 2019 to 2020, a total of 177 employers across Canada were found to be non-compliant with their legal responsibilities as employers of migrant workers. That would mean a mere 2.9 percent of investigations found illegal activity between 2019 and 2020 (if we base the number of investigations on ESDC’s average of 3,000 per year).

What’s more, a closer look at IRCC’s data reveals that only four employers were banned from hiring migrant workers between 2019 and 2020. This may change as the government continues to process claims from 2020.

“When a foreign worker comes forward and is issued an open work permit under these regulations, the employer that they have been working for will face a compliance inspection,” explained Lauren Sankey of IRCC in an email. “This can lead to a monetary penalty, a ban on hiring foreign workers and, when warranted, further criminal investigation.”

IRCC’s data also shows that, in 2020, only one employer was indicted on “breaking federal, provincial, or territorial law,” and is now ineligible to hire migrant workers simply because they did not pay a monetary fine of $1,250.

In 2019, another employer was found guilty, but is now allowed to hire new foreign workers after paying a smaller penalty of $750. These fines amount to a fraction of the amount Sato has to pay her employer. Surely, such a small sum would not deter a business that profiteers from indentured labour.

According to a spokesperson from ESDC, penalties of up to a million dollars can be issued to employers. But according to IRCC’s data, no such fine has ever been given. Higher penalties need to be administered with greater frequency, otherwise exploiters will have no motivation to stop.

No guarantee of new employment

In the event that an employee is able to prove abuse—which can be quite difficult according to Faraday—they will be offered a work permit, but left to find a new job on their own. Because of low employment rates driven by the pandemic, newcomers are all the more nervous about leaving a job. There is also the danger that, after being granted an open work permit, that a newcomer could end up working for another exploiter.

“It’s a temporary relief from the circumstances that facilitated the exploitation,” said Faraday. “But it’s not a process that puts a stop to the breeding ground for exploitation.”

Faraday herself put forward a solution to this issue in her 2012 report, Made in Canada. In it, she proposed the construction of a database of employers in need of migrant workers. Should a migrant worker have any issues with an employer, they would be able to use the database to find new work. There would be no need for an Open Work Permit For Vulnerable Workers, and it would also eliminate the time and effort that comes with processing the permit and proving abuse. It is telling that simple solutions like this have been known for at least a decade.

As it stands, Sato said she will not apply for the Open Work Permit for Vulnerable Workers, and she doubts others in her immigrations stream would either.

Editor’s note: Hina Sato’s name and details of employment have been changed to protect her identity.

Chris Hunter is a writer and teacher living in Vancouver.

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