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What Will the Minister of Labour Do for Migrant Workers?

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Dear Mr Naqvi,

We have some things in common. I read that you came to Canada from Pakistan in your early teens. I immigrated in my early teens too, except I moved to Pakistan. My father, you see, was a migrant worker in Dubai and, after living there for decades, my family was forced to separate.

Moving to a new city, learning new ways, and making new friends must have been hard for you -- it definitely was for me. In some ways we are different, since your family came here in search of safety, while my family moved because the country we lived in wanted our labour, but not us.

And that's what I'm writing to you about. As you take up the position of Minister of Labour for Ontario, will you be thinking about all the workers here, or just the ones that hold the passport of your adopted country?

Please make sure Mr Naqvi reads this, click 'email' where it says 'share this story'. He is at ynaqvi.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org

There were over 440,000 immigrant workers without full status present in Canada on December 1, 2011. Of the 300,211 that CIC tracks as foreign workers, 67,405 were in Ontario. Nearly 37 per cent of these are workers deemed low-skilled, work in dangerous conditions and for low-wages. For too long, they have been ignored.

Though migrant workers make up only 1.5% of the total work force of Ontario, they are some of the most marginalized.

It was workers without full status who died in the last two large industrial accidents in Ontario, 10 workers in Hampstead, Ontario, in February 2012, and 4 workers on Christmas Eve 2011 in Rexdale, Toronto.

Dangerous working conditions are just one part of the problem. Migrant workers are denied access to basic healthcare for the first three months. If they are injured, they are deported without full workers compensation. Many workers return home too sick to work. Programs that they pay into like E.I. and CPP are denied to them, while they can be paid 5%-15% below the average wage. There is no fair appeals process for workers facing removal, and many of the provincial employment standards act (ESA) regulations don't apply. Agricultural workers in the province are still unable to unionize. Ontario is also yet to fully criminalize recruitment fees or to go after employers and recruiters who seize migrant worker documents.

In short, migrant workers are treated like disposable, second-class workers and denied the most basic protections. Is this something you are going to allow to continue under your watch?

The problems in the migrant worker program are systemic and require long-term re-structuring. Many of them require you to demand changes at the federal level. Some like updating laws against recruiters to match best practices being developed in Manitoba require amendments to existing legislation, but there are two steps you could take immediately:

(1) Expand and amend the Employment Protections for Foreign Nationals Act to safeguard all migrant workers from recruiter fees and recruiter abuse.
(2) Endorse the call for a Coroner's inquest on the Hampstead incident that left 11 workers dead, one of the largest workplace disasters in Canadian history.

The Employment Protections for Foreign National Act

The Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals Act (Live-In Caregivers and Others) or EPFNA came into effect on March 22nd, 2010. The Act recognized that migrant workers employed through the Live-In Caregiver Program were in need of protection from being charged recruitment fees and having their personal property seized.

Members of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change have documented numerous cases of migrant workers employed through other Temporary Foreign Worker Programs (TFWP) who are also being forced to pay substantial fees and have reported that their passports and other property were seized by recruiters or employers. Live-In Caregiver groups have documented the fact that the practice of charging recruitment fees continues unchecked.

Migrant workers are being charged exorbitant fees for work with the false promise of full labour and citizenship rights. When workers speak out about their rights, they face reprisals and expulsion from the program and from Canada.

Under current Ontario laws, this practice of charging fees from workers is legal. Fortunately, this gap in Ontario's employment laws is easily remedied.

As passed by Ontario's legislature, the EPFNA includes provisions to make regulatory changes to include all migrant workers within its mandate. The Ministry of Labour could also fund proactive investigations of employers while, again through regulatory changes, extending the limitation period for filing complaints about recruitment fees.

Inquest on the Hampstead Deaths

First of all, there has never been a Coroner's inquest in Canada on migrant worker deaths. When five Italian immigrant workers died in Canada in March 1960, the ensuing actions led to the formation of a Royal Commission, a new labour act and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Why is the death of 10 Latin American migrant workers not cause for similar concern?

Chief Coroner Dan Cass says that fatigue, weather, road conditions, road design, driver licensing and familiarity with the area were considered, but the coroner's investigation concluded none of those played a role in the crash.

That's hard to believe. The driver had just finished a long shift, was not appropriately licensed and the workers were in a 15-seater van that has found to be three times more likely to roll over in collisions and is banned from transporting students. What's more, the workers were contract labourers, bussed from farm to farm without adequate training or support. Many of them had paid thousands of dollars in recruitment fees. If all of that does not warrant an inquest, I am not sure what does. Debt, dangerous working conditions, lack of adequate training, and unsafe transportation are common farm worker experiences - all these meant that this accident was simply waiting to happen. (See expert recommendations on Occupational Health and Safety, especially 29-35)

Such 'accidents' are happening in every aspect of the migrant worker program in Ontario, all you have to do is join with organizations like UFCW and Justicia to reach out to your colleague Ted McMeekin, Minister of Community and Social Services and work with him to make this happen.

Neither of these two things requires immense legislative maneuvering, you could do them at a stroke of your pen.

Mr Naqvi, I, and many others hope you do the right thing.

Syed Hussan