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Lawsuit denounces Canada’s migrant workers program as modern-day slavery

  • Published on
    February 9, 2024
  • Category:
    Law & Policy
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When Black and Brown field hands were recruited to Canada to fill labor shortages in the 1960s, a migrant worker program was established to inextricably tie workers to their specific employers. The tied visa program for migrant workers still stands today. However, as reported by Al Jazeera, a light has been shone on the “racist and discriminatory” origins of this tied employment scheme and the modern slavery conditions it props up by a proposed class-action lawsuit.

“Tried and true way” of maintaining a power imbalance

The proposed lawsuit alleges that Canada’s migrant worker program violates the country’s constitution, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that racism was intentionally baked into it from the start. By tying visas to specific employers, the program could ensure Canada would benefit from the labor of temporary workers while assuming none of the responsibility for them as citizens. In cases of exploitation, they could simply ship them home.

Chris Ramsaroop, an activist with the group Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) said:

“The system treats Black and Brown workers differently than Canadian workers… (the system) works against the interest of migrant agricultural workers, this is designed.”

Ramsaroop points to the fact that employers can terminate migrant agricultural workers’ contracts early if a weather event hits crops and their work is no longer needed. Instead of compensating the workers, as with a Canadian citizen facing similar conditions, they are sent home with nothing. There are also many documented instances of migrant workers being forced to live in crowded, substandard housing and work long hours in unsafe conditions for low wages. If they raise a complaint workers fear being deported or barred from coming back to Canada for the next season as the current system offers little to no protection.

Canada’s system is “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery”

In 2019 the government introduced an open work permit, also known as an International Mobility Program for Canada, a type of work permit that is not specific to a certain job. All other work permits are issued for the holder to work for one employer, but the Open Work Permit allows you to change employers as long as the permit is valid. In effect, this permit supports workers leaving abusive situations and it maintains a confidential tip line for temporary foreign workers to report abuse in addition to claims it is working to “improve the quality of employer inspections.”

But in 2022 a group of Jamaican farmworkers came forward claiming they were mistreated while working in Canada, saying the conditions were akin to “systematic slavery.” Just a year later a United Nations expert who reviewed Canada’s system called it “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.” According to Louis Century, a lawyer involved in the proposed suit, the tied employment model remains the source of “countless injustices”.

Speaking about the suit Century stated:

“Ending tied employment today doesn’t cure the harm it has caused to generations of workers over the past 50-plus years. But at a bare minimum, it stops perpetuating that harm.”

Century further stated that the suit is just the first step in “reckoning with the racist legacy” perpetuated by this program since its implementation. The lawsuit is currently in the early stages and a certification hearing is needed to determine whether it can move forward or not. If it is allowed to move forward it could help address the “harm to generations of racialized workers” as every current or former migrant farmworker who worked in Canada over the last 15 years would be considered part of the class.

Discriminatory laws and exploitative policies must end

Freedom United stands beside all immigrant workers in calling for fair labor protections and working to help end discriminatory and exploitative policies wherever they are found. Labor exploitation and inadequate labor protections are massive issues, not just in Canada, but all over the world.

If you haven’t already, you can take action to help by signing our petition in support of strong, mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. Join the call for laws that put people and the planet before profits. Because the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the goods we buy should not cost anyone their dignity, freedom, and human rights.

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Rani Tamarua
Rani Tamarua
2 months ago

Disgusting worker exploitation & racism Canada! Justin Trudeau should be ashamed of his country!

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