They're admitted under a federal program, but the provinces that monitor labour standards don't know where to find them. They should have the same rights as Canadian workers, but if they complain, their employer can get rid of the problem by simply sending them home.
In Ontario, a horrific sexual abuse case is highlighting problems with the structure of the foreign worker program. A Mexican worker was awarded $150,000 by a human rights tribunal after being forced to perform sex acts by an employer under threat of being sent home.
The legal aid workers, union activists and experts who helped her in her fight for justice point to the difficulty of uncovering this kind of abuse, when workers are isolated by language and ignorant of their own rights.
"The reason this case is an exception is that there was an actual case that went forward. Many workers don't go forward. They're careful. They don't want to be sent back," says Chris Ramsaroop, an activist who works extensively with TFWs through Justicia.
The employer has sole discretion to remove their right to work – and there is no one to complain to about an unjust firing, because workers are sent home quickly.
Taking Canadian jobs?
When the temporary foreign worker program has been in the news, the usual complaint is that it is taking jobs from Canadians.
But among temporary workers, there are a litany of unaddressed complaints – unpaid wages, unsafe conditions, too few hours of work, racial discrimination and poor living conditions.
Ramsaroop argues the revamp of the TFW program put in place earlier this year actually made the ability to uncover abuse worse.
"If that happened today, those workers would have four years to pursue the case, but they wouldn't be able to work during those four years.... Then, they would have to go back to their home country and they wouldn't be able to come back."
The new rules limit the time TFWs can spend in Canada to two years, making it less likely that inspectors would uncover any abuses.
It's been difficult to direct attention away from the who-stole-the-jobs argument to the issue of whether people are being treated properly when they're here.
As program grows, abuses mount
"Since the 1990s, there's been an upsurge of people with more abuses coming to the surface," says Kerry Preibisch, an expert on migrant workers who testified before the human rights tribunal.
"When it's referred to government authorities, the provinces say it's a federal program, but the federal government says the province is the one responsible for employment, housing and health," she said.
A federal inspection program has been added under the latest revamp of the law, but as yet has no track record.
One problem is that the provinces, who enforce labour laws, have not known who within their borders has hired temporary foreign workers.
That's a problem Manitoba has tackled with its Worker Recruitment and Protection Act, implemented in 2009.
The act insists that companies that are going to employ temporary foreign workers be approved by the province and a special investigations unit has been set up to inspect employers of migrant workers. A sweep through the Manitoba restaurant industry two years ago turned up dozens of infractions.
Manitoba also prohibits recruitment fees – the large fees some recruiters charge in Mexico or Guatemala to workers who want jobs.
Manitoba seen as model
Many activists concerned about abuse of migrant workers hold up the Manitoba program as a model for other provinces to follow, because it combines legislation with enforcement.
Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have adopted many aspects of Manitoba's laws in reforming their own legislation to protect foreign workers.
Getting migrant workers, many of whom don't speak English or French, to understand their rights and know who to turn to for help is a different problem.
Since 2008, the federal government has given workers a pamphlet informing them of their rights. But a pamphlet may not be enough in a situation where employers wield so much power.
The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) has been spending an increasing amount of time on migrant worker issues over the past two years because of mounting stories of abuse, according to its executive director Janet Bench.
The CCR and its member agencies have attempted to serve temporary foreign workers when stories of abuse have emerged, she said, but it's not always possible to get funding to cover such work.
"Federal funding for some services is tied to eligibility and temporary foreign workers aren't eligible," she said.
The CCR has created province-by-province report cards on the rules around migrant workers – with Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia getting high marks.
Opening door to immigration?
Ontario, where the sexual abuse case took place, gets mediocre marks, as its Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act covers only live-in caregivers. Agricultural workers are prohibited from organizing in Ontario and none of its laws cover the other category of workers – the low-skilled workers who are making up the bulk of vulnerable migrants.
But Ontario has begun the process of reforming its labour laws and a series of hearings around the province is being held to gather information. Ontario has the greatest number of workers on visas in the country, more than 81,000 according to federal figures.
None of this, however, is likely to address the fundamental flaws of bringing in workers on temporary visas. There are upwards of 280,000 such workers in Canada, but they're considered disposable.
"There is an exemption from the protections that you and I have that allows these abuses," Ramsaroop said.
That's why labour activists are keen to stop restricting workers on visas to one employer and to create an avenue for them to win full immigrant status in Canada.
They also make these recommendations for federal and provincial governments, to improve the rights of workers on visas:- Give migrant workers the opportunity to move to another employer if a job becomes available.
- Prohibit recruitment fees and work with migrant-sending governments to curb abusive labour brokers.
- Provide an avenue to Canadian citizenship for all workers, not just those in high-wage jobs.
- Devote resources to informing workers of their rights.
- Give workers a way to address unfair treatment, through community agencies or labour enforcement.