Temporary foreign workers, live-in caregivers and seasonal agricultural workers in Ontario are coming together to advocate for better treatment by employers and the government.
“We want to improve the working and living conditions for all temporary foreign workers in the province and we want to ensure workers are involved,” said Carolina Alvarado, co-ordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, launched June 1 in Toronto. “The demands come from them, this is what they want — not to be oppressed and marginalized in Canada.”
The alliance is made up of migrant workers, activists, grassroots community groups, community faith groups and labour organizations. Seventeen Ontario organizations are involved from Toronto, Niagara and Windsor and the alliance is looking to connect to other groups across the province, said Alvarado.
As of 2010, there were 283,096 temporary foreign workers across Canada and 99,474 in Ontario, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
While there have been individual advocacy groups formed within the sectors, this is the first alliance of its kind in the province, she said.
“I believe there are other groups in other provinces doing this kind of coalition work but it is the first one in Ontario,” said Alvarado. “We already have temporary foreign workers within the restaurant industry and we’re looking to connect to workers in construction and hospitality — those are the goals.”
One of the demands of the alliance is permanent status be granted to migrant workers upon arrival.
“Most temporary foreign workers have an employer-designated work permit and they can only work for that employer,” said Eva Eaton, client services manager at Atkins First, an international recruitment and immigration consulting firm in Calgary. “The permanent residency gives the workers the ability to apply for and work for any employer, same as a Canadian citizen.”
Being tied to one employer allows employers and recruiters to take advantage of migrant workers, said Alvarado. Senthil Thevar, for example, came to Toronto from India in 2008 to work as a cook but was afraid to complain about his 11- and 12-hour days and unfair wages because his legal status was bound to the employer, she said.
“When they come here with a work permit that says you can only work for so-and-so, whenever they face any kind of abuse they don’t feel comfortable to seek help because employers usually say if they do, they will be sent home,” said Alvarado.
Offering permanent status to migrant workers upon arrival would benefit employers as well since they wouldn’t have to deal with the labour market opinion (LMO) and the work permit process, said Eaton.
“It would save the employer time, energy and money but, having said that, there’s often a lengthy processing time overseas to get permanent residency (with all the) documentation that is required,” she said.
And for employers, the appeal of the temporary foreign worker program is the ability to bring people in for a period of time that has a defined end, said Hilary Predy, associate vice-president of business solutions at Adecco in Edmonton.
“Once that word ‘permanent’ seeps into the conversation, into the mix, it may not be as appealing,” she said.
The alliance is also demanding the right to equal access for all social programs, including employment insurance, health care, settlement services, social services and workers’ compensation.
“In terms of employment insurance, they don’t get covered — even though they are paying into it, they cannot claim it,” said Alvarado. “And settlement services mostly support immigrants, not migrants… there should be some kind of support for migrant workers.”
Many legitimate employers are looking after these benefits on a private basis, said Predy. For example, many employers in Western Canada in the oil and gas industry employ temporary foreign workers and they have the same rights as all other employees because they are valued in the same way, she said.
“We have a situation here where we may be dealing with smaller employers, restaurants, individuals bringing people in who may not be aware of what they should be doing for their workers as opposed to a company with an HR department that understands the implications,” said Predy. “The right companies will look after people in the right way.”
The alliance is also seeking the right to full protection under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act enjoyed by Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
“The thing is, even though live-in caregivers are entitled to minimum wage, breaks, holidays, rest periods, these things, in some cases, are not being enforced and we want full enforcement,” said Alvarado.
To help ensure fair treatment of temporary foreign workers, HR should make sure it is working with a reputable, licensed recruitment agency, said Eaton. Employers should also have policies and business models in place to support these workers, as well as offer transition services to help them navigate the Canadian workforce and provide temporary accommodations if necessary, said Predy.
“We have heard stories of very good employers that follow the rules, protect workers and ensure they have good conditions,” said Alvarado. “For those employers that are doing the work and respecting the law, they should encourage others to do the same.”
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