OTTAWA – The federal labour minister was advised to fire back at a Carribean country late last year ahead of a planned meeting to discuss changes to how much temporary foreign workers in Canada were expected to pay back to their home countries.
Up until 2016, an agreement between the governments of Canada and Caribbean countries allowed employers of migrant farm workers to withhold one-quarter of their wages and hand the money over to their home governments.
Most of the money, 20 per cent, was considered a forced savings plan, and the remaining five per cent was used to cover administrative costs.
The policy, however, violated employment laws in several provinces.
Changes were made Jan. 1, 2016 so that only up to $5.45 a day of a migrant worker’s wages would flow back to the Caribbean to help those governments cover certain expenses. The deductions must be consented to, in writing, by the migrant worker.
The Jamaican government was not pleased.
A briefing note prepared for Labour Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of a planned November 2017 meeting with her Jamaican counterpart warned that she would hear an earful about the issue, given that Caribbean governments had “consistently voiced their disapproval of the elimination of the 25 per cent remittance policy.”
Officials recommended that Hajdu counter by demanding Jamaica’s labour minister, Shahine Robinson, provide a detailed explanation of how much revenue the country collected from migrant workers, how the money was used and whether workers were reimbursed for any excess amounts.
The Canadian Press obtained the internal document under the Access to Information Act.
Asked about the meeting, Hajdu’s office did not to offer any details.
The briefing note about the program, which has repeatedly been beset by problems, not only highlights the ire of foreign governments over changes made to it by the Liberals, but also domestic concerns that the adjustments don’t go far enough.
The workers must also agree to allow employers to deduct $2.26 a day for utilities in most provinces. All provinces except British Columbia can also take $10 a day from the migrant workers’ wages to pay for their meals.
In B.C., employers who house temporary foreign farm workers off site can deduct up to $6.20 a day for rent, while the amount they deduct for food in that province depends on how many meals a worker eats, to a maximum of $12 a day.
In total, agricultural foreign workers from Caribbean countries would see about $425 a month in wages held back by employers for these expenses.
Since most temporary foreign workers on Canadian farms are only paid minimum wage before these deductions, they are not being paid or treated fairly, says Chris Ramsaroop, a spokesman for Justicia for Migrant Workers.
“It’s absolutely unjust. It’s unfair,” he said. “And I think that the continued system where workers are tied to an employer and an inability to exert their rights creates conditions where this will continue.”
Ramsaroop said his group has been pushing for temporary foreign workers to be granted permanent status and given open work permits, so they have the freedom to find better jobs if they are unhappy with how they are being treated or paid by employers.
Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees says agricultural workers hired through the program are exploited in multiple ways, including by abusive recruiters, poor wages and Canadian laws that “don’t protect their rights.”
“People enter these programs because of limited opportunities and because they’re really forced to leave home to find a job and are forced to put up with circumstances which are fundamentally unfair,” she said.