On June 4, 2019, migrant workers in Canada working for an abusive employer finally got a process for changing jobs – a right that other workers can take for granted.
In order to work in Canada, non-permanent residents or citizens must have a work permit. Most migrant workers are issued what are called “closed” work permits. There were over 160,000 closed work permits issued in 2018. Workers with a closed permit are only legally allowed to work for one employer. Changing employers is a very difficult and unwieldy process, which requires the worker to find another employer who is willing to take the trouble and expense of applying to the government for permission to hire the worker.
It is widely recognized that closed work permits put workers at high risk of abuse. If they speak out about abuse, they have a reasonable fear that their boss will fire them and send them back to their home countries. If they leave their job, there is no guarantee that they will find another job and meanwhile they will lose the income they need to support themselves (and often their families). The Canadian government has now acknowledged that “the power imbalance created by this dynamic favours the employer and can result in a migrant worker enduring situations of misconduct, abuse or other forms of employer retribution.”
With the creation of a new “open” work permit for migrants who are facing or at risk of abuse, the Canadian government has taken a step towards ensuring migrant workers have safer work environments. An open work permit allows a migrant to work for any employer and in any job.
Under the new program, workers in the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (such as care and agricultural workers) are eligible for an open work permit if they can show:
- That there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that they are experiencing abuse or are at risk of abuse at work.
- That they hold a valid closed work permit (or applied for a new one before the old one expired).
- There is no fee to apply, which will make the permit accessible for low-income and precarious migrant workers.
- Sometimes workers are tricked or forced into doing unauthorized work, like working for a different employer than the one listed on their permit, which may itself be part of the abuse they experienced. At the urging of migrant justice advocates, the open work permit will be available to workers who did not follow all the rules on their work permit.
- The migrant worker’s family will also be eligible for an open work permit if they are in Canada.
Through our membership in Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, the Income Security Advocacy Centre joined with workers and advocates to call for such a program as one short-term step towards justice for migrant workers. But these open work permits are not a solution to the problem of migrant worker exploitation. For one thing, only workers who are still in their abusive jobs are eligible to apply. Once they leave their job this avenue is closed to them. Migrant workers who are facing exploitation must be able to leave such situations without penalty. Also, only workers with a current work permit are eligible, which will deny eligibility to some migrant workers in the most precarious situations of all – those without any status.
Finally, despite the urging of advocates, the Canadian government has refused to commit to a one-year duration for the open work permit and to making it renewable. Instead, the immigration officer looking at the application will get to decide how long it will last for. If they wish to continue working in Canada after the open work permit expires, they will have to get a new closed work permit tying them to a new employer, ultimately finding themselves in the same risky situation they just escaped. If the worker doesn’t manage to get a new closed permit – a process that Canada itself has described as “lengthy”, “costly” and “a clear disincentive to report abuse” – they will have to leave Canada when the open work permit expires as per normal procedure.
Ultimately, a labour market system that relies on temporary workers leaves those workers at greater risk of exploitation because employers will always be able to threaten to send them home or blacklist them from future work. As Syed Hussan, coordinator for Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, observed following the program’s announcement, “We are pleased to see the Canadian government finally acknowledge that tying migrant workers to one employer places them at very high risk of exploitation, the solution must be permanent resident status on arrival for all workers, not just open work permits for some after they have been abused.”
Migrant workers are entitled the same rights and benefits as any other worker in Canada. Only permanent residence on arrival can level the playing field and ultimately raising the bar for all workers.
Nadar Mahamud is a Policy Intern at the Income Security Advocacy Centre. Jackie Esmonde is a staff lawyer at the Income Security Advocacy Centre.