Open Work Permit Now Campaign
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - November 14, 2023
The Open Work Permit Now Campaign welcomes reforms to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers, as alluded to by the Minister of Immigration during a meeting on November 7 with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Immigration. However, in his statement, the Minister downplayed and completely dismissed the systemic nature of the unjust treatment of migrant workers by referring to it as an abuse that exists on the “margins” done only by a few bad employers.
“We are very concerned reforms that do not recognize the systemic abuse of the closed work permit program and the widespread abuses experienced by people who come to work in Canada will be short-sighted and add to an already overly complicated system,” explains Shelley Gilbert, Interim Executive Director of the Legal Assistance of Windsor. “The abuse of migrant workers is not a recent issue or problem. It is entrenched in a system and a way of thinking that minimizes the value placed on racialized workers and/or particular industries in our country.”
Each year, thousands of people come to work in industries such as agriculture, caregiving, transportation, construction and hospitality and many experience abuse, harassment, and forced labour experiences while in Canada due to unjust labour and immigration policies such as the closed work permit. In a recent visit to Canada, the UN Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery condemned the use of the closed work permit system because it “makes migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation.” The UN Rapporteur’s statement is just the most recent denunciation of Canada’s closed work permit system, which has been denounced by migrant workers, human rights and labour organizations regularly, underscoring the urgent need to abolish the closed work permit and replace it with unconditional open work permits and independent access to permanent resident status.
In his statement, the Minister hinted at changing the closed work permit system to regional or sector-specific work permits. However, these permits also raise serious concerns regarding safeguarding the fundamental rights of migrant workers. “Workers need the ability to circulate freely throughout the labour market. Permits tied to a specific sector or region would just end up providing employers with access to a pool of captive workers and will continue to undermine workers’ ability to demand fair treatment and negotiate better working conditions,” explains Hannah Deegan, member of the Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers’ legal committee.
“For me it is essential to have an open work permit to be able to look for better job opportunities, where we will not experience mistreatment, humiliation and discrimination on jobs. The reality is, this is what the majority of workers go through,” said Alvaro (migrant worker - not his real name)
The government’s own studies, including the 2009 Standing Committee report on temporary foreign workers and non-status workers as well as the 2016 Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, recommended discontinuing employer-specific work permits and found employer-specific work permits “place migrant workers in a vulnerable position with negative implications for their physical and mental well-being.”
A petition drafted by the Open Work Permit Now Campaign and presented by MP Jenny Kwan to the House of Commons on November 7, 2023, highlights the fact the Canadian government recognized the embedded “power imbalance” of closed work permits in 2019 and that various regulatory reforms have done very little to protect people from abuse. The petition called for the elimination of closed work permits without delay and the adoption of a work authorization regime permitting temporary foreign workers to freely change employers while in the country with an open work permit, regardless of their occupation, region or national origin.
“The closed work permit system gives employers the right to own a human being. Migrant workers have histories, skills, wisdom and knowledge to share, and they have names and faces. In the wake of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are standing with the workers and demanding rights and freedom from exploitation no,” said Marco Luciano, Executive Director of Migrante Alberta.
During the National Migrant Worker Event in Edmonton on November 12, migrant workers spoke loud and clear: “The closed work permit system set us up for exploitation the moment we sign the work contract with the employer. It restricts our freedom of movement and takes away our freedom of choice. We are reclaiming our dignity and respect back and calling on the government for unconditional open work permits with realistic and straightforward pathways to permanent residency. Currently, the requirements in the limited options for permanent residency are too far-fetched and discriminate against workers based on their language ability and field of work, among others. We are the backbone of the Canadian economy and should have barrier free pathways to permanent residency. We also demand a regularization now for those of us who are undocumented and continuously mistreated because of the lack of basic human rights.”