Does Canada have unfree workers?

Does Canada have unfree workers?
Gerardo Otero Gil Aguilar
APRIL 9, 2013
In mid-March, Canadians were met with news reports about the arrest of migrant workers by agents of the Canada Border Security Agency, while a reality-show TV crew recorded the action. This incident caused immediate concerns about whether migrant workers have the privacy rights that Canadians treasure. But we should also be raising broader questions about the very existence and functioning of migrant-worker programs, not just the mistreatment of alleged unauthorized workers.

While most Canadians find their roots in immigrant parents or ancestors, the country is increasingly relying on a series of “guest” temporary foreign worker programs, which in fact create sharp divisions in the workforce in accessing labour and human rights. This amounts to a new form of indentured or unfree labour, as workers are tied to a specific employer and thus highly dependent upon their “goodwill.” We suggest that the labour is “unfree” from the point of view of the workers, or “indentured” from the point of view of the employers. On a societal level, however, it could be regarded as a system of racial segregation — a systematic way of procuring a racialized work force. Workers in these programs cannot hope to integrate into Canadian society.

With the imminent BC elections in May, mentions of migrant workers’ rights have been marginal at best (after all, migrant workers do not vote). The trouble is that the way Canada treats its “guest” workers has an impact on the entire labour force. Lower labour standards for migrants put downward pressure on the conditions of all workers — Canadian citizens and immigrants alike. Since 2006, the number of temporary foreign workers entering Canada has exceeded that of new immigrants. The latter, at least, have a route to citizenship and therefore labour rights equivalent to those of all Canadians.

Those who work closely with migrant workers insist on the need for a special agency, based in civil society, which guarantees that employers meet current labour regulations. Farm workers are particularly disadvantaged, as the BC employment standards for the farm sector are lower than those in the rest of the economy. Worker advocates propose random spot-checks at farms so that proper enforcement can be exercised. Better standards are required, but without enforcement, all we have are paper laws. Advocates also propose the participation of workers’ representatives in the development and enforcement of labour contracts for migrant workers. These should have measurable and verifiable mechanisms to prevent work places in which, in some reported instances, employers impose curfews, thus imposing norms of behaviour after work. There is the added insult that migrant workers have to pay rent for the barracks in which they are housed — 31% of workers identified their living quarters as hazardous to their health in a 2010 report co-authored by one of us.

Advocates also demand that workers have the right to change employers (a basic and vital condition if workers are to be free to exercise their rights), to complain of mistreatment, and to have the same labour rights as those of any other Canadian; all of this without causing deportation or losing their jobs. Why does the government allow migrant workers to make up to 15% lower wages than Canadian workers in the same sector? Why do guest workers get deductions for Employment Insurance if, by definition, they will never enjoy unemployment benefits? Why are farm workers excluded from the right to paid holidays and overtime? And why are they repatriated if they suffer an accident? This form of labour segregation is fundamentally at odds with our basic values of equality. The question is whether our politicians will do anything to grant proper rights to our “guests.”

Gil Aguilar is at the Agricultural Workers Alliance, Surrey Support Centre, and Gerardo Otero is professor of sociology at Simon Fraser University. Both are members of the BC Coalition for Employment Standards ( and Otero is a research associate with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.