Gains and Gaps for Migrant Workers in Ontario’s Proposed New Workers Rights Regime

Gains and Gaps for Migrant Workers in Ontario’s Proposed New Workers Rights Regime

by Sharmeen Khan (Migrant Workers Alliance for Change) and Jackie Esmonde (Income Security Advocacy Centre)

Long hours of work for little pay, the inability to take time off of work when personal emergencies arise, fear that speaking out about abuses will lead to deportation – these are the kinds of working conditions faced by many of the 200,000 temporary foreign workers in Ontario.

The proposed changes to Ontario’s labour laws found in the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (or Bill 148) have the potential to hugely impact their lives and well-being.

So how does the proposed Bill fare in terms of the lives and workplaces of migrant workers?

A $15 Minimum Wage Will Lift Many Migrant Workers out of Poverty

The Bill takes some important steps to address migrant worker precarity, including progress on personal leaves, and equal pay for temporary and part-time workers. A proposed $15 minimum wage is a cornerstone of this legislation and an important step towards lifting migrant workers out of poverty. Migrant workers are amongst the lowest paid workers in Ontario. They are a disposable workforce of predominantly Black or people of colour, whose skills and lives are seen as having little value.

Poverty in Canada is directly tied to poverty abroad. Migrant workers come to Canada in the hope of escaping poverty and despite their low wages, they send large portion of their earning back to their families.

Here are some other changes that can benefit migrant workers:

  • Ten days job protected personal emergency leave – two of these days will be paid. Employers cannot require medical notes when you are off sick.
  • Equal pay for equal work for seasonal workers – those seasonal workers that are doing a similar job as a full-time or permanent employee will be entitled to the same pay. This also applies to part-time, temporary agency and causal workers.
  • Three hours of pay for cancellation of work shift with less than 2 days’ notice and the right to refuse a shift scheduled with less than 4 days’ notice.

Exemptions Continue to Leave Migrant Workers Unprotected

The power of employment standards are their universality; that they guarantee basic standards that cannot be violated. But many migrant workers, particularly agricultural workers, are excluded from minimum wage guarantees, hours of work standards, overtime pay, vacation pay and breaks.

Bill 148 does nothing to address those exemptions that disproportionately exclude many of the most precarious of workers from protection.

While the Ontario government has promised to review exemptions in the fall, supporters of migrant workers need to put the heat on the government to end the exemptions.    

Stronger Enforcement Means Stronger Protection

Worker rights are only as strong as a worker’s ability to enforce them. Migrant workers face enormous barriers, because of the threat of deportation if they complain. While the government has committed to increasing resources for enforcement, more steps need to be taken to remove these barriers, including a robust system of proactive enforcement and avenues for anonymous reporting.

The Ontario government must work with the federal government to ensure that workers are protected from deportation while employment standards complaints are being investigated. Issuing open work permits while a case is being investigated would ensure that workers are not punished to live in deep poverty while they seek justice.

Migrant Workers Still Cannot Collectively Bargain to Improve Their Working Conditions

One of the best ways to help vulnerable workers in precarious jobs is to expand access to unions. Bill 148 does nothing to address the fact that agricultural workers and caregivers have no effective way to unionize and collectively bargain changes to their workplaces. 

Ending Labour Unfairness

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has created a separate system of labour where some workers are denied the basic rights enjoyed by other workers in Canada. This system has disastrous impacts for migrant workers and their ability to work with dignity. While we continue our fight for permanent status on arrival, a necessary step that will allow migrant workers to leave abusive employers, we need to fight at the provincial level to ensure that employment standards apply to all equally.

If you would like to help improve the working conditions of migrant workers, please go to Migrant Worker Alliance for Change for resources and tool kits. For more information on how you can help with the Fight for $15 and Fairness, join the Summer Campaign Kickoff!