United Nations special rapporteur Tomoya Obokata has concluded that Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”
Ironically, earlier this year, the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act (Bill S-211) was passed by the federal government. For the Liberals, this was an opportunity to pat themselves on the back and proclaim themselves as fighters against modern-day slavery (Fightback has thoroughly refuted this notion in a recent article). However, recent findings by the UN demonstrate that contemporary slavery is alive and well even within Canada. This sheer hypocrisy is yet another demonstration of the cruelty of capitalism.
According to the report, temporary foreign workers have to work long hours with no overtime pay. They are denied access to healthcare, and faced with racism and xenophobia. When not working, they are forced to live in crowded and unsanitary employer-provided housing. In an open letter from 2021, workers describe conditions in this housing as “so poor that rats eat their food. They live in crowded rooms with zero privacy with cameras, and lack dryers to dry their clothes after it rains.”
By design, the TFWP makes the workers incredibly dependent on the employer. Workers are given closed work permits—meaning that they cannot change employers and can be deported if they lose their source of employment. They are forbidden from working until they can find another employer within the program and are thus forced to endure whatever abuse they are subjected to.
As if that isn’t enough, TFWP workers also have to take on debt to even enter the program when they register with recruitment brokers, who have been known to illegally charge exorbitant fees. This creates additional pressure for the workers to put up with their employers and stay in Canada, no matter what abuses they face.
While these accounts are stomach churning, they’re not new even in mainstream news. In 2021, the auditor general of Canada published a report which slammed Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) for its negligent COVID-19 inspections at farms that employ migrant workers. Their inspectors filed reports that were weeks late and oftentimes gave employers a pass when they had clearly violated guidelines by failing to provide workers with adequate access to water, cleaning supplies, or quarantine spaces. By 2021, over 80 per cent of reports were conducted negligently!
As a result, many COVID-19 outbreaks and at least three deaths took place on farms across Ontario. One company was found guilty for the death of one of their workers but was fined a measly $125,000. As an activist from the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC) put it, “These minimal fines are simply the cost of doing business for corporations.”
Governments deny allegations
Representatives from both the Canadian and Jamaican governments have attempted to cast doubt on the UN’s findings.
The office of Immigration Minister Marc Miller tried to deny that workers aren’t able to change employers. According to them, workers can apply for an open work permit and they then can find new work within 10-15 days. This claim is out of touch with reality. As mentioned earlier, there are a multitude of factors that make it difficult or impossible for temporary foreign workers to find new sponsors.
It’s clear that the government is not simply blind to these problems—the program is functioning as it should be. The goal is not to provide temporary workers with good work and living conditions—it is to guarantee cheap labour to capitalists. This is particularly true in the agricultural sector, where over 15% of workers are part of the TFWP. Poor treatment by capitalists is nothing new; it’s as old as capitalism itself. Thanks to the TFWP, they are able to get away with it due to the precarious situation that migrant workers find themselves in.
The foreign workers’ home governments are also in on the scheme. Jamaica’s right-wing government, for example, has attempted to cover up the crimes of imperialism with its own “independent fact finding” report. In it, working conditions are portrayed as adequate and we are assured that the workers receive only “fair and equitable treatment” from their Canadian bosses. But this flies in the face of all other reports that have been published.
It is important to consider the interests at play. According to data from the World Bank, remittances accounted for 21.6 per cent of Jamaica’s GDP in 2022. With cheap labour being such an important export, the government is keen to sweep any issues under the rug.
No matter the country, what Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto holds true: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
Clearly, this disregard for human life comes both from bosses and the government. Workers have nobody to rely on but themselves. And despite their vulnerability, migrant workers have started fighting back.
Workers speak out against ‘systematic slavery’
Workers from the TFWP have voiced their protest against mistreatment and abuse on several occasions. One instance made headlines back in 2021 when a Jamaican worker was killed while working as a tobacco harvester. A public letter was published which stated plainly that “the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) is systematic slavery.” The writers detailed similar conditions as those reported by UN rapporteur Obokata—verbal abuse, cramped housing, poor quality of food, inadequate protection against pesticides, and so on.
This summer, workers at an Ontario farm went on strike despite lacking formal union protections after their housing was flooded with sewage. Some workers filmed their conditions and circulated a video of their employer berating them. The employer sent many of them home as “payback” for standing up to their boss. It is scandalous that even in such cases, workers have to either accept inhumane living conditions or risk deportation.
In August, migrant workers in British Columbia held a protest to demand the same rights and protections as Canadian workers. The workers had a simple slogan: “Just treat us like humans.”
What is the solution?
While the UN’s criticisms of the TFWP are sharp, the solutions proposed are tame. They simply recommend that workers should be able to choose their employers and be treated with decency. But, as the minister of immigration has pointed out, on paper that’s already the case.
The fact is that the conditions created by the TFWP which leave workers so vulnerable to abuse are a feature of the program, not a bug. The slave-like conditions of migrant workers are a useful tool in the hands of the bosses, allowing them to both exploit the workers’ labour to the fullest possible extent and threaten Canadian workers with replacement if they demand too much.
The only way to improve the conditions of migrant workers and break the chains of modern slavery is to overthrow these modern-day slavers. Migrant workers have begun to fight, proving that the bosses can only repress workers so much before they are moved into action. The organized Canadian working class must back them up. In doing so they will make the entire working class stronger.
No worker benefits from the oppression of another. Through the united efforts of the international working class, we can build a communist world—guaranteeing decent work and living conditions for all.