International Migrants Day: Looking back on 2013 and migrant workers rights in Canada

This International Migrants Day (December 18), the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) reflects on the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Canada, and what has changed for them in 2013. In May 2013, the CCR published a series of report cards evaluating each provincial government as well as the federal government for their level of protections and services for migrant workers.

Today the CCR looks back to ask what has changed since releasing the report cards. Have governments acted on the gaps in protection since the report cards came out?

The CCR is encouraged to note that in the absence of action at the federal level, some provinces are taking steps to improve the services and protections available to migrant workers in their jurisdictions. There have been a number of welcome developments:

  • In May, the government of Manitoba announced that the province would extend health coverage to migrant workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program – one of the recommendations of the CCR report card for Manitoba. 
  • In the fall, the PEI government began to fund a position for a migrant worker support person at a Charlottetown settlement agency. A position like this must be made permanent and the services made accessible to all types of migrant workers, however whether this will be the case is not yet confirmed.
  • In October, Saskatchewan’s Foreign Worker Recruitment and Immigration Services Act was implemented, requiring recruiters and immigration consultants to be licensed with the province, and to provide $20,000 in financial security to obtain a license. Employers are also required to register with the province to employ migrant workers. The legislation bans charging fees to workers for recruitment or other immigration services. 
  • In December, Ontario announced its Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, which bans charging recruitment fees to workers, and extends the 2009 Employment Protection for Foreign Nationals to all migrant workers – both recommendations of the CCR report card for Ontario. The Act also changes the Ontario Employment Standards Act to facilitate the recovery of unpaid wages and the provision of information on workers’ rights under the Act. The CCR looks forward to learning of the enforcement mechanisms that will ensure its effective implementation and increased protections for migrant workers in Ontario. 
  • In December, the province of New Brunswick announced amendments to its Employment Standards Act. The amendments include an employer registry and provisions to ensure that employers recover only allowable costs from foreign workers, and they clarify legal practices with respect to housing arrangements and holding of personal documents. These changes are encouraging, but New Brunswick should enforce the Act proactively, since the present complaints-based approach does not respond to the needs of migrant workers. 
  • The Newfoundland and Labrador government is working on a Provincial Population Growth Strategy. In the discussion paper temporary foreign workers represent “a potential pool of new permanent residents”. This is an opportunity for Newfoundland and Labrador to embrace migrant workers, who make important economic contribution, as permanent residents of the province. The CCR emphasizes the importance of non-discriminatory access to permanent residence for migrant workers, regardless of skill category.

The changes announced this spring by the federal government did reverse the regressive rule allowing migrant workers to be paid 15% less than Canadians. However, they did not address the rights abuses suffered by migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation because of their precarious status. In November, changes were announced to the Canadian Experience Class, removing six lower-skilled occupations from the list of those eligible to apply for permanent residence. This move deepens the discriminatory divide between those in “high-skilled” categories who have access to permanent residence, and those in “low-skilled” categories who do not.

The CCR hopes that the provinces absent from this list will take action to protect migrant workers in their jurisdiction. 

See the CCR Migrant Worker Report Cards.