In a move applauded by migrant workers’ rights advocates in Canada, unscrupulous employers who withhold workers’ passports could face steep fines and even jail time under the new Working for Workers Act – legislation aimed at protecting migrant workers who may be vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitative work relationships.
Fines and jail time for unscrupulous employers
The new legislation introduced by Ontario’s government seeks to increase penalties for business owners or individuals who withhold a worker’s passport with fines of between $100,000 to $200,000 per every worker whose rights are violated.
Additionally, individuals could face up to 12 months of imprisonment and corporations convicted would be liable for a fine up to $1 million. These fines are the highest maximum fines in Canada.
“Anyone who preys on vulnerable members in our community has no place in our society,” said Monte McNaughton, the province’s minister of labor, immigration, training and skills development. “If you think you’re going to deny someone’s basic human rights by withholding their passport, we’re going to hit your pocketbook and you will be behind bars for a long time.”
Trapped without a passport
Withholding an individual’s passport or identification is one of the primary means of controlling a worker by an abusive employer, according to Shelley Gilbert, coordinator of social work services for Legal Assistance of Windsor. She said, “[this legislation] is a message ot employers who hold people’s passports that the government is taking this seriously. It is a violation of human rights and a common practice used in human trafficking.”
Santiago Escobar, a national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers union representing the between 5,000 to 10,000 migrant farm workers in the province, applauded the new legislation for holding employers accountable. He told the Windsor Star:
“This is still a big issue, so we welcome the new legislation,” Escobar said. “It’s not all employers, but unscrupulous ones are still withholding passports which is illegal. Hopefully, employers will think twice before holding anyone’s passport or work permit.”
However, he said that the Ontario government should go a step further to allow migrant workers the right to union representation under the Labor Relations Act to better protect against such issues.
Individuals who are trafficked are often trapped when their passports or work permits are held from them illegally. There is more to do in order to address this issue. Loly Rico, executive director for FCJ Refugee Centre in York, shared: “While this will hold employers accountable, there is still much more progress to be made. We need to see changes in policies on a federal and provincial level that will protect workers and their rights and break barriers to equity among all workers in Canada.”
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