Why Is Stephen Harper Sending Domestic Workers Back to 1973?

first published on Huffington Post Canada

It was November 22, 1981. Domestic workers from the Philippines, Caribbean and the UK had gathered in a protest of thousands in downtown Toronto.


“We scrub the floors, we cook the meals, we raise the children — why aren’t we good enough to stay?” asked Eulene Boyce, a West Indian domestic worker.

“We are here … united in our stand … calling for an end to the system of indentured servitude which, since 1973, has denied over 60,000 domestic workers the right to landed status in Canada,” added a spokesperson for INTERCEDE (International Coalition to End Domestics’ Exploitation)

Four days later, on November 26, then-Immigration Minister Lloyd Axworthy, bowing to nearly a decade of mobilizing by immigrant women, created a path for domestic workers to gain permanent residency.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper turned back the clock.

As of November 30, only 5,500 domestic workers will have the right to apply for permanent residency each year. All the rest, just like those 60,000 between 1973 and 1981 will be rejected. Likely, many will be deported.

And what is this world of 1973 that Harper is sending us back to? To understand it, we have to go back a little further. Domestic workers started coming into Canada around 1901. They arrived with full citizenship rights. That was perfectly OK for decision makers because at that time Canada had a Whites-only immigration policy, and most of these workers were of European descent.

Domestic workers of colour from the Caribbean and the Philippines started arriving in the late 40s, and unlike their white counterparts were largely denied citizenship rights. Following the end of White-only immigration policy in 1967, new policies were created in 1973 that denied permanent residency to domestic workers. 1973 was the also the year when the roots of the current Temporary Foreign Worker Program were laid. Thus the creation of the “temporary” migrant worker programs were at their very core a policy rooted in racist exclusion. And that’s exactly where the clock is being turned to today.

The shutting out of thousands of racialized women from permanent immigration status is being strangely spun as a step forward. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander insisted, “We are saying to the whole Canadian population, to caregivers above all, the time of abuse and vulnerability is over”.

Fay Faraday, a lawyer and visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School who has written leading reports on migrant worker rights, disagrees, “Access to permanent residence has become precarious and unpredictable. Workers won’t know at the outset whether they are on a route to permanence or a revolving door of temporariness. This will leave them considerably more vulnerable than they were before.”

Migrante Canada, a cross-Canada alliance of migrant groups, added, “Migrant workers will continue to endure low wages, difficult working conditions and family separation in the hope of becoming a permanent resident, but their dreams will not be realized.”

The policies coming into force are accompanied by Harper and Alexander acceding to a long-term demand of Caregivers — the forced requirement to live in employers homes is now voluntary.


But Caregivers are not fooled. As Caregiver Action Centre organizer, and former Live-In Caregiver Liza Draman explained, “The only thing that is good about the announcement is the end to the live-in requirement. If the minister is serious about improving the condition for the caregivers, he should grant them status upon arrival.”

Poet, activist and feminist researcher Salimah Valiani explains that the end of Live-In requirement is not all it seems. “Many migrant caregivers may elect to live with employers given that carework is poorly remunerated. Living independently is costly when added to other obligations typically carried by migrant workers including recruitment fees and remitting money to family back home.”

Even though Caregivers won the right to permanent residency in 1981, the fight hasn’t entirely been won. Excessive requirements were placed on those applying for residency. A series of intense organizing efforts led to the easing of some of these restrictions but permanent residency is still difficult to access. Restrictive and exclusionary provincial laws add to the injustice, denying protections from recruiters, health and safety benefits and access to effective protections from reprisals to Caregivers who are on provisional temporary immigration status for 4-10 years.

“Caregivers are right up against the wall when it comes to completing the required number of work hours within 48 months,” notes Geraldine Pratt, professor of feminist geographies at the University of British Columbia. “If they become ill or need to change employers, they may end up staying with the last employer, regardless of abuse and exploitation, in order to complete the program requirements and apply for permanent resident status.”

While the requirements have meant that many Caregivers could not access permanent residency already, what changes today is that even if Caregivers fulfill the exclusionary requirements, they may be barred from permanent residence.

But Caregivers are not giving up hope. Caregiver organizer Pura Velasco who has been actively working for Caregiver rights since 1989 insists, “We are resilient and strong. Caregivers will continue to stand up and fight for status and respect, no matter how long it takes us. Open the door!”

Fear of Migrant Workers Is Xenophobia

first published on Huffington Post

There has been massive media attention on the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) in the last few weeks. Mainstream and social media is full of analysis and solutions. Some critics and commentators insist that the only appropriate way forward is shutting down the low-skilled temporary foreign worker program. They are wrong.

With increased workplace uncertainty, as permanent jobs disappear and the public sector shrinks, many are looking around for culprits to blame. Though migrant workers and the TFWP seems like an easy target, it isn’t.

Its important to analyze the key arguments being made about the TFWP.

1: Migrant workers are pushing Canadians out of jobs and taking jobs from unemployed Canadians.

News outlets and commentators have reported how the total numbers of migrant workers entering the country make up one quarter (some say three quarters) of new jobs created in Canada, thus suggesting that migrant workers are taking jobs from young workers. The news media is full of a few cases where migrant workers are replacing citizen workers. This is missing the forest for the trees.

There were between 76,711 – 230,379 low-skilled migrant workers in Canada at the end of 2012 — making them 0.0042 per cent — 0.013 per cent of the labour force (the large discrepancy between the figures is because 153,668 workers’ occupational classification is not reported on by Immigration Canada). Of these about 35,000 worked in the agriculture sector, while another 19,830 were live-in caregivers.

There are officially 1.35 million unemployed Canadians in the country (real unemployment is likely twice as high). Even if all migrant workers were excluded there would be at least 1.1 million unemployed Canadian citizens left.

Communities with the highest levels of unemployment — like Nunvaut — have relatively few migrant workers. And regions with the lowest rate of unemployment — that is Alberta — has the highest number of migrant workers coming in. There is no generalized replacement of citizen workers by migrant workers.

Add to that its well know that migrant workers are often replacing other migrant workers — like on southwestern Ontario farms where migrant workers have been coming since the mid-1960s.

Secondly, migrant workers are often coming in to jobs that were previously also occupied by new immigrants – these are the low-paying jobs in gas stations, retail and manufacturing that newcomers work in to get a leg-up. It’s the same demographic of people — racialized, young and middle-aged newcomers — who are working these jobs. Except now, they will be deported after a few years rather than build a life here. Immigrants have always formed a critical part of Canada’s workforce — only now they are here temporarily.

There is absolutely no evidence that says that shutting out migrant workers would mean that employers would hire young Canadian citizens. That’s because there is a major disconnect between labour, education and training policy in the country. What is needed is government support for skills training, as well as income security — not migrant worker exclusion.

2. Employers and corporations are using migrant workers to keep wages low

The only reason migrant workers can be paid less, and exploited more is because of two-tiered federal and provincial laws, and legal limitations on collective organizing. In Ontario, for example, provincial law excludes many migrant workers fromminimum wage, occupational health and safety guarnatees, and even the landlord-tenancy act protections based on their occupational classifications.

Shutting down the TFWP would not mean that the employers would immediately raise wages for Canadian workers. Lobbyists for fast-food restaurants like McDonalds, for example, have been advocating against minimum wage increases in Ontario. They might choose to move jobs to other regions in the world, to advocate for moregovernment subsidies and tax cuts , or to pass down increased costs to consumers, or do all of the above.

Many argue that migrant workers cause a downward pressure on wages and work conditions — therefore uplifting and empowering them is the only way to improve conditions for all.

3: Migrant workers are less likely to stand up against abuse

Migrant workers are less likely to stand up to abuse because they have more to lose when speaking out. The real culprit here is the law that ties migrant workers to an employer, and gives employers immense power to deport people at whim. The simple solution to that then is full immigration status on landing which would remove the coercive power employers and recruiters hold. It’s also important to note that despite these limitations, migrant workers have organized, including mass rallies, speaking out against recruitment fees , fighting back against employer abuse and more.

At a time when all the provinces are cutting resources from labour departments responsible for keeping corporations in check, abuse already encompasses citizen workers. It’s not about abolishing the TFWP, it’s about ensuring real labour protections for all.

4: Corporations are breaking the law by hiring temporary foreign workers.

Many have said that the temporary foreign worker program is being used illegally. That the TFWP is supposed to be a short-term labour shortage fix, and employers are making it otherwise. This is a profound misunderstanding of Canadian and global immigration policy.

Since 1978, more people have entered Canada on a temporary basis then on a permanent basis. This is not a new story, and there is no simple solution — like shutting down the TFWP.

Since Harper came in to power in 2006, temporariness has been entrenched throughout the immigration system. It’s not just that there are more temporary migrant workers, now parents, grandparents and spouses also come in temporarily.Refugees and permanent residents face many different ways where their status can be revoked — making them also temporary.

This is the new global face of immigration with most “countries” expanding their guestworker programs, a regime that is being pushed at the United Nations level.

The entire immigration system — not just the temporary foreign worker program — is determined by corporate interests. The new expression of interest system is controlled by employers. Referred to as an “online dating” system, employers cherry pick from immigrant applicants to fast-track who can come here permanently. Only workers from 24 occupations can apply.

Corporations aren’t breaking the intent of the law. Temporary immigration is the law of Canada and the global norm. The solution is not to slam the door shut on migrant workers. Or even, as some progressives insist, to simply expand the permanent immigration system. That would just mean more corporate-driven immigration. Poor and racialized workers (so-called “low-skilled workers”) that make up the TFWP, must be able come to Canada freely with full immigration status on landing, including the ability to reunite with their families. We need to openly contest the factors that force people to move, and create systems of migration that are people, not corporate-driven. We need status for undocumented migrants now.

What lies beneath

Unlike stories of the deaths of migrant workers like Ned Peart,healthcare denial,racist policing, or mass exploitation like in the Presteve Case, it seems to be that its only stories pitting migrants against “Canadians” that get national attention.

The use of incorrect statistics and skewed economic arguments to demand the exclusion of Temporary Foreign Workers by people all along the political spectrumhearkens to a lengthy history of exclusion of immigrants from Canada. While in the past racist headlines read “Immigrants are taking Canadian jobs,” now they insist “Foreign workers are taking Canadian jobs.” What’s the difference?

There is more afoot here, its xenophobia and it must be challenged. It is important that we do not repeat the injustices of the past. Full immigration status for all, full rights for all workers is the only way forward. Resist attempts to divide unemployed, migrant, and poor people.

Amar Bhatia reports back from UN HLD, PGA, IAMR

Amar Bhatia reports back from UN HLD, PGA, IAMR

On behalf of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), I appreciated the opportunity provided by the Canadian Labour Congress, to attend the recent meetings in New York City in and around the UN High Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and International Development.

I spent my time between the two outside events: the People’s Global Action (PGA) on Migration, Development, and Human Rights, and the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees (IAMR 4).

I was there representing MWAC (formerly Coalition for Change), which is ‪a coalition of migrant workers and allied organizations made up of community groups (Justice for Migrant Workers, Caregivers Action Center, and Migrante Ontario), national unions (UFCW, Unifor), legal clinics (Parkdale Community Legal Services, Windsor Legal) and others.  However, these comments are just a few, quick personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Alliance or individual Alliance members. (more…)

12 recommendations to end migrant and undocumented worker poverty in Ontario.

12 recommendations to end migrant and undocumented worker poverty in Ontario.
The Government of Ontario is organizing a consultation on its poverty reduction strategy.Community groups have long demanded good jobs, a liveable income, minimum wage increases, and a raise in social welfare rates to pull Ontarians out of poverty. Communities need and demand decent transit, strong public programs and a commitment to social justice and equity. Many insist that Ontario must invest resources and set targets that reduce poverty for everyone, prioritizing children, families, and communities, not austerity. We at the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change Agree.
But we know that most of the 350,000 Ontarians who are migrant workers and undocumented people don’t get minimum wage, overtime pay, OW, ODSP, social housing, full healthcare or social service programs. Few migrant and undocumented workers can reunite with their families, and those that do are denied the most basic rights and protections. Ontario must do more to end migrant and undocumented workers poverty.

12 easy steps!

For too long non-status and migrant worker Ontarians have been pushed aside. This time, let’s make it right. Here are 12 easy short-terms steps Ontario could take to address migrant and undocumented worker poverty: (more…)

What Will the Minister of Labour Do for Migrant Workers?

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, email it to him at ynaqvi.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org (more…)

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.


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