Migrant workers’ rights in Canada – still more of a dream than reality

“Do Canadians really find it acceptable that there’s two sets of human rights, depending on whether or not you have a piece of paper in this country?” Lee asks. Documentary filmmaker and Associate Professor at OCAD University, Min Sook Lee, believes the story of migrant workers’ experience in Canada is critical to expose.

The Migrant Dreams film screening & panel discussion at UBC (Mar. 16) highlights migration issues in Canada through the perspectives of various stakeholders.

Migrant worker programs in Canada have expanded substantially, bringing in half a million people from over 80 countries between 2006 and 2014. Migrant workers’ rights, however, remain lacking.

Umi Khulsum, one of the workers featured in the film. | Photo by Iris Ng

Canada’s “labour apartheid”

For instance, Lee’s previous 1999 documentary, El Contrato, revealed migrant workers’ experiences in the greenhouse industry in Leamington, Ontario. In an attempt to censor the documentary, growers issued Lee with a libel notice that shut down film distribution for one year.

“Realizing that just getting the story out was seen as controversial, made me aware of how important it was to tell,” she says.

When Lee began working on Migrant Dreams in 2014, the landscape of migrant worker programs in Canada had changed with the expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and the use of private recruiters. Lee discovered recruiters were unregulated and charging illegal recruitment fees of up to $14,000.

Filmmaker Min Sook Lee. | Photo by Thomas Evers

Migrant workers address the shortage of people willing to do what Lee describes as the “3D- work” in Canada: dirty, difficult and dangerous.

Yet even basic protections under the Employment Standards Act are difficult for them to access.

“I’ve seen migrant workers who’ve lost the vision in one eye; been sprayed with pesticides, dealing with chronic lung infection; have experienced racially targeted harassment; and living in overcrowded living conditions that are unsanitary and unsafe,” Lee says.

The term “labour apartheid” emphasizes Canada’s two tier system, through which the design of the TFWP restricts both workers’ fundamental human and labour rights. These workers are used to fill a labour shortage that is not temporary but permanent, facilitating billions of dollars in profit for their employment industries and allowing the Canadian government to avoid addressing immigration reform.

“And yet because migrant workers are here under a temporary program, in which their compliance with employers’ rules is their only ticket to staying in the country, [they] are in many ways indentured to the employer,” Lee says.

A question of belonging

Lee notes the extensive historical precedent of migrant worker programs in Canada, and their purposeful design, which confers citizenship onto preferred categories of settlers according to colonial hierarchies. Migrant programs work to restrict racialized workers’ status to impermanent, thereby reproducing Canada’s historic racial hierarchy, she argues.

“The cultural sense of who is a Canadian and who belongs continues to be a question in tension because of the ways in which migrant worker programs regulate citizenship and status,” Lee explains.

Thus, the celebration of Canada’s multiculturalism is contradicted by the continued restrictive design of its immigration programs. Lee emphasizes the importance of viewing the TFWP within this broader context as a system “institutionally designed” to invite abuse.

She acknowledges the courage of migrant workers who speak out in such circumstances. She feels this decision reflects a moral outrage and expectation that Canada was better and must do better.

Prognosis for change

In spite of extensive evidence supporting the flawed program design, including cases documented through the Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario, there have been only mild reforms.

“Why does it take some extreme case of abuse or violence for any kind of reform to finally happen?” Lee asks.

She points out that “purposeful unknowing” keeps migrant workers invisible to the Canadian consciousness, although their hands have touched everything that Canadians rely upon.

Ultimately, migrant worker programs raise questions around the values inherent in being Canadian; and Lee wants the upcoming UBC event to move the audience beyond knowing to taking action on the issues.

For more information, visit www.sppga.ubc.ca/events/event/migrant-dreams-film-screening-panel-discussion-2020-dr-richard-b-splane-lecture-in-social-policy/