OTTAWA – Canada needs to do more to protect temporary foreign workers from being charged predatory recruiting fees and falling victim to human trafficking, says a national non-profit organization that fights for the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants.
The Canadian Council of Refugees says some temporary workers brought in to fill low-wage jobs are being recruited overseas by agents who charge upwards of $40,000 to place them in a job.
This has led to situations where migrant workers are left indebted to the recruiters and are then vulnerable to abuses, including human trafficking.
Charging employees recruitment or placement fees is illegal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, says Janet Dench, executive director of the council.
Often, the culprits are overseas headhunting companies or agents hired by Canadian companies to find workers, she added.
“It’s widespread and it comes up again and again, people saying, ‘When I got here I had already paid this amount of money in order to get this job,’ and so people are in a very bad situation.”
With fees that can range from a few thousand to, reportedly, up to $40,000, temporary foreign workers sometimes end up in debt to the recruiters. This is how they then become victims of human trafficking. Some workers also find out after coming to Canada they are not earning nearly enough money to pay off their debts to recruiters or that their work permits are shorter than they were told, Dench says
She does admit it is hard to measure how widespread this problem is, because of what she says is a lack of enforcement and monitoring on the part of provincial and federal governments, except in Saskatchewan. There, employers can only use agents who have officially registered with government to headhunt for migrant workers, which allows government to monitor the recruitment firms and also offers workers an avenue to file a complaint.
“From the federal government’s perspective, we have yet to see any meaningful action to address this problem,” Dench said.
The refugee council has issued a series of report cards rating the performance of provinces and the federal government when it comes to protecting rights of migrant workers.
While it noted some improvements following an investigation of the temporary foreign worker program by the auditor general last year, Ottawa did not achieve a very high grade.
For its part, the federal department that oversees the temporary worker program says the issue of legal recruitment falls under provincial jurisdiction and that many provinces are taking steps to reduce exploitation and abuse of migrant workers.
The federal government is spending $15 million over three years to start making unannounced, on-site inspections of workplaces that use temporary foreign employees.
To help combat human trafficking, Public Safety will spend an additional $14.5 million over five years, beginning in 2018-19, and $2.89 million a year ongoing to establish a national human trafficking hotline. This will allow people to report abuse to law enforcement, refer victims and survivors to the appropriate services and collect data to better understand the scope of the problem.
Dench says her council is against the idea of relying on temporary foreign workers to fill low-wage jobs at all. But if they are used, government should do more to ensure they are protected.
“We recognize (government) has been doing a bit more in terms of enforcement, that’s of course welcome, but we need to see a whole lot more.”