The Great Tory Rip-Off of Migrant Workers

First published on the Huffington Post on December 18, 2012

Today is the International Migrants Day. On Dec 18, 1990, 22 years ago, the UN passed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. No migrant-receiving country, including Canada, has ratified this convention.

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Just last week, Federal Human Resources Minister Finley took away special E.I. benefits from migrant workers through a quiet Thursday afternoon regulatory change. She did this assuming that most people wouldn’t notice. Just to add insult to injury, she cut these benefits that were won after years of protest by the women’s movement, on December 6 — the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

This isn’t just a mean-spirited move, or a lump of coal as a Christmas gift to migrant workers as theToronto Star notes, it is part of a long-term strategy to take away basic support from all unemployed workers, irrespective of immigration status. Migrant workers, seen as the most vulnerable, are just the test case. If these benefits aren’t restored, and E.I. not expanded for migrant workers now, the axe on all E.I. benefits for all workers will fall far more swiftly and painfully then it already has.

Just in 2008, migrant workers and their employers paid an estimated 300-million dollars in to E.I. but were only able to access some paternal, maternal and compassionate benefits. Now even that has been made off-limits. This while, the numbers of temporary workers contributing in to E.I. premiums has gone up by nearly 17 per cent since 2008.

This theft of migrant workers’ hard earned money takes place in a year where Canadians laws are already stacked up against them. In Canada, it is legal to pay migrant workers 5-15 per cent below the average — a total jettisoning of the age old consensus of equal pay for equal work. Recruiters run amok, charging migrant workers thousands of dollars while provincial laws do little to end this exploitation. Migrant workers are often unable to get full social services or access basic health, and safety protections. Those that fall sick or complain face deportations.

In a press release by MWAC member Justicia for Migrant Workers, Junior Sylvester a 12-year veteran of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program says

“The elimination of these special benefits violates the nature of the Employment Insurance act that was put into place to protect our families and our children from falling into poverty.”

Adriana Paz Ramirez, an organizer for Justicia for Migrant Workers agrees, adding “For over 40 years migrant workers have been subsidizing Canada’s E.I. fund yet have been ‘ineligible’ to receive full benefits, and now they are being completely stripped away from the few special benefits they were able to access. This is completely unjust and outrageous.” (See Justicia’s call for actions, including a vigil in Toronto today, here).

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (also a member of MWAC) launched a petition against these cuts, insisting “It is the Great Tory Ripoff of Migrant Workers. It is like being forced to buy mandatory auto insurance but you are excluded from coverage.”

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) has noted how migrant workers were again being treated differently then workers with citizenship. The CLC noted: “The Minister did not mention that Canadians and permanent resident workers who pay into the E.I. system are able to access maternity/paternity benefits when they reside out of the country.”

The Canadian parliament isn’t exactly the pinnacle of democratic process right now (case in point: the massive budget bill that was pushed through Commons earlier last week despite immense opposition), but it must be noted that the banning of migrant workers from E.I. benefits they paid for happened without being discussed in the Commons.

Much of public policy is being set by press release and through decisions summarily announced on the government’s online website. Remember how tens of thousands of refugees had their healthcare cut — that was a regulatory change. You know how women are forced to stay in marriages for two years to get citizenship — regulatory change.

Harper’s Ministers have been summarily amassing powers for themselves. Jason Kenney, one of the key architects of our current temporary immigration system, has given himself unilateral power to decide which refugees should be indefinitely jailed and which shouldn’t. Trying to keep up with him, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley has amassed special powers for herself to define what constitutes “suitable employment” for E.I. claimants, and to define “reasonable and customary efforts” to find work.

Claimants can be cut off benefits if they decline “suitable employment” and do not make “reasonable and customary efforts” to find work. This includes taking jobs at wages 30 per cent below what they were previously earning. The expansion of the temporary foreign workers program, theft of E.I. benefits from migrant workers and Canadian citizens alike, are all part of one “cheap labour” strategy.

Diane Finley and Kenney think they can get away with this program, simply because no one is paying attention, the question is, are they right? Soon after the E.I. changes were announced, migrant worker organizing escalated. Migrant workers themselves organized an educational seminar for non-migrant workers about the impact of these E.I. cuts in Southern Ontario, while many MWAC members issued statements and organized actions. Migrant workers and their allies are demanding justice, status, dignity and full rights, and we are creating those as a reality in our communities.

As one migrant worker in Leamington said when the E.I. benefits were first announced,

“It doesn’t matter our race, our colour, or the country we come from. United we fight for our rights. United we are strong.”

“I Am Here in Canada and I Am Treated like a Dog”

First published on the Huffington Post on November 13, 2012

The Canada Border Services Agency just announced that it had deported 16,511 people in 2011-2012, dubbing it a “milestone year.”

“It is really chilling,” said Mary Foster from Montreal’s People’s Commission which successfully advocated to have Adil Charkaoui’s security certificate struck down and get Abousfian Abdelrazikback in to Canada. “It’s the moral equivalent of a mob killing someone and then jumping on their bodies in triumph.”

Deportation to death is not just an analogy. The case of Veronica Castro and Grise have made national headlines in the past years, women who were denied refugee status, were told that they were making up their refugee claims and deported. Both of them were murdered upon their return just as they feared.

These numbers, however, are only part of the forced removals story.

Every year tens of thousands of migrant workers are coerced to leave after getting hurt on the job or because their work permits are revoked or have been completed. This is euphemistically called “repatriations.”

According to government statistics, 3,709 migrant farm workers were deemed AWOL in the program between 1996 and 2011. A further 1,198 were sent home for medical reasons during that period, and 2,923 were flown back due to “breach of contract.” These are, in essence, deportations.

Winston Morrison is one such worker. In his own words:

“I was injured while working on a farm in Ontario on June 25, 2011. I had an operation on my knee on the 14th of September, 2011. They put a plate in. I was sent home to Jamaica and I went to the doctor there because something was wrong with my knee. The doctor gave me antibiotics. Then I went to another doctor and I kept telling him I wanted to go back to Canada to get treated, but my doctor wouldn’t give me a letter saying that I should go to Canada. In February, the second doctor opened my leg to see what was wrong. He said I had a tumour and I should go back to Canada to have it operated on.I got to Canada in May for a surgery and the doctor cut off my whole eg. The doctor told me that if I had been back in Canada a few months earlier, they could have saved my leg. The doctor in Canada could not tell me if my leg had a tumour or not. He cut off my leg because of the infection that I had because of the plate in my leg.

WSIB cut me off my compensation because they say that my leg was cut off because of the tumour and not because of my first injury. The Jamaican government has also cut me off benefits.

I am here in Canada and I am treated like a dog. We pay into the system, so why do we not get the same rights? I worked every day for eight months. This country gets so much from us and then they throw us under the bus. “

Though Winston was able to come back, many other workers that leave the country after being injured don’t. Most never see a penny of compensation for their workplace injuries.

Injured workers are one egregious part of the missing picture. Other migrant workers or people in other immigration streams that want to stay but leave because of the terms of their contract or permits should be counted as forced removals. Including those would significantly increase the numbers from the 16,511 that CBSA has currently announced.

“State designed immigration policies make it impossible for migrant workers to stay in Canada,” says Chris Ramsaroop from Justice for Migrant Workers, one of 13 member organizations of theMigrant Workers Alliance for Change. “There are significant amount of workers that are repatriated who want to stay in Canada. That’s part of the human face behind these partial deportation numbers.”

Canada is implementing a revolving door immigration policy, with high deportations and a shift to migrant work. It is clear to see who is paying the cost of these policies. Are we okay with this? It’s time we slow this down.

 

Worker Exploitation Is Not Just a Chinese Problem

First published on the Huffington Post on November 2nd, 2012

Stuck as we are in the midst of a U.S. Presidential campaign that has consistently framed China as the “boogey man,” the homogenizing outrage against the Canada-China Investment Agreement focused, it is as if China- and Chinese-bashing is all the rage right now.

If you’ve been following all the flare-up in British Columbia in the last few weeks about migrant workers from China coming to work in B.C.’s coal mines you’d think that migrant workers being charged recruitment fees is something that’s never been done before.

Even the B.C. Federation of Labour listed Chinese migrant workers being charged recruitment feesup to C$ 12,500 as the number one reason to suspend temporary work permits for the B.C. coal mine.

Fact of the matter is that charging recruitment fees is not just a “Chinese” problem; it is a home grown Canadian one.

Fay Faraday wrote recently:

“As labour migration has increased, private recruiters have emerged to facilitate the flow of workers from one country to another. Exploitation in this relationship is able to flourish precisely because of the structural and income inequalities addressed above (i.e. the actual migrant worker laws themselves that deny people immigration status) and migrant workers’ location in that power imbalance.”

Here, in Ontario, member organizations of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) like Justicia for Migrant Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Caregivers Action Centre have repeatedly highlighted stories of migrant workers being charged enormous sums of money yet too little has been done by the provincial labour ministry.

We’ve heard of “Angela” who was charged $5,000, or the 19 workers in Windsor who typically paid between $9,000 to $ 12,000 or the workers in Regina who paid over $5,000 dollars to recruiters. These are just some of the stories that made the mainstream press — countless others never will.

In Ontario, charging recruitment fees from migrant workers is legal unless it is investigated as human trafficking which it rarely is. This needs to change.

In March of 2010, MWAC groups managed to get the Ontario Ministry of Labour to pass the Employment Protection for Foreign National Act (EPFNA). Unfortunately, the bill only covered migrant workers coming in as live-in caregivers, leaving out many other workers coming in on other programs who were also being charged recruitment fees. Many of the provisions of the bill, such as an anonymous enforcement line aren’t active. Since then, migrant workers and their allies have called on Ontario repeatedly to act to amend the EPFNA to ensure real protections for workers.

One model to consider is the Manitoba’s Worker Recruitment and Protection Act (“WRAPA”). WRAPA provides greater protection because it applies to all migrant workers, puts the onus on employers and recruiters to be accountable at the front end, and involves both federal and provincial governments in proactive oversight and enforcement. No employer can recruit a foreign worker without registering with the Ministry of Labour which includes details of the duties, location and time period of the migrant worker’s employment.

In contrast, Ontario’s recruitment protection requires no monitoring by the Ministry and no licensing of recruiters, or registration of employers. It is difficult for the Ministry to enforce the law when they have no idea where recruiters are operating, or where migrant workers are working.

As Canada shifts towards a permanent system of temporary immigration, it’s become critical to change provincial laws so that they protect migrant workers rather than employers and recruiters. The answer is not to shut down temporary work programs as some argue, it is to ensure full immigration status on landing for migrant workers. And alongside this struggle at the Federal level, we need to ensure that provincial and municipal laws and policies change so that migrant workers get access to full protections and services.

Follow Syed Hussan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hussansk