CIMM#84: Government's Response to the Final Report of the Special Committee on Afghanistan and Closed Work Permits and Temporary Foreign Workers

I want to say thank you to all the witnesses, as well.

I want to carry on the conversation with responses from Ms. Gagnon and Mr. Pilon.

On the issue of temporary foreign workers, I understand you're indicating there is a system problem. The system, of course, creates an environment where there's an imbalance of power. The reality is that temporary foreign workers have zero power. They are entirely reliant on their employer. If they complain about the employer, they get fired from the job. They are then in deep trouble, because they're not making the money they need to send home to support their families, for example. From that perspective, in that power imbalance environment, there can be abuse that occurs. You have cited some horrific examples to that end.

In order to create a better balance of power, some advocates have advanced the notion of an open work permit. That is to say, the employers would have to treat these employees fairly. If they don't, they will move on somewhere else. Some people argue that having an open work permit means you can't keep them in the sector, because they can go anywhere. However, as with all jobs, to be competitive and get good workers, you need to pay them and have good employment conditions.

I wonder whether you can comment on the need for system change. Should the government be considering an open work permit option for migrant workers?

Citizenship and Immigration Committee on Nov. 23rd, 2023
Evidence of meeting #84 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 44th Parliament, 1st Session

4:10 p.m.


Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
NDP

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

I want to say thank you to all the witnesses, as well.

I want to carry on the conversation with responses from Ms. Gagnon and Mr. Pilon.

On the issue of temporary foreign workers, I understand you're indicating there is a system problem. The system, of course, creates an environment where there's an imbalance of power. The reality is that temporary foreign workers have zero power. They are entirely reliant on their employer. If they complain about the employer, they get fired from the job. They are then in deep trouble, because they're not making the money they need to send home to support their families, for example. From that perspective, in that power imbalance environment, there can be abuse that occurs. You have cited some horrific examples to that end.

In order to create a better balance of power, some advocates have advanced the notion of an open work permit. That is to say, the employers would have to treat these employees fairly. If they don't, they will move on somewhere else. Some people argue that having an open work permit means you can't keep them in the sector, because they can go anywhere. However, as with all jobs, to be competitive and get good workers, you need to pay them and have good employment conditions.

I wonder whether you can comment on the need for system change. Should the government be considering an open work permit option for migrant workers?

 

Michel Pilon
Legal Coordinator, Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec

At RATTMAQ, we're having a lot of discussions with organizations that are involved in the round table, particularly the UPA and FERME, which is represented here today by Borja Torres. We're in favour of the idea of having an open permit, but we'd also agree on a sectoral permit. We clearly understand that if completely open work permits were available tomorrow morning, some agricultural sector workers would prefer to work at Olymel for $22 an hour, for example, rather than work on a farm for minimum wage. So it's important to create sectors.

We'd undoubtedly be open to the sectoral aspect of open permits. However, it would be important for the sectors to be clearly defined. They shouldn't be too limited, or else we'd revert to the same situation as in the case of closed permits. The idea is to establish larger sectors, which would enable workers to offer their services to other businesses should problems arise in the business where they work. For example, they could go to work on another farm, in the case of the agricultural sector, but the same thing would apply in other sectors.


Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
NDP

Thank you.

I will jump in with my question, because I have limited time.

You noted that you support an open work permit, although you would want to see a sectoral open work permit. Your comment was that if there were a general open work permit, the workers could choose, for example, to work for a grocery store as a cashier. Maybe that's the case, or maybe it isn't, in terms of the competition. Doesn't that raise this question, though? If wage is the issue, shouldn't the employer at the farm increase the wages, so they can attract the workers?

I say this with all sincerity. I come from an immigrant family. Our whole family immigrated here. We had permanent residence status. When my mother first went to work, she went out and worked as a farm worker. She made $10 a day to support a family of eight. That is the reality. You're right. After two years, she got some work experience and then moved to the next stage as a minimum-wage worker—a dishwasher at a restaurant—until she retired at 65.

You're right. People look for better opportunities as they gain more experience. Doesn't that raise the whole point that you, as an employer, need to have good working conditions as well as competitive wages, in order to attract the workers and retain them?

 

Michel Pilon
Legal Coordinator, Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec

I can give you a quick answer to your question by saying that RATTMAQ is a member of the coalition to raise the minimum wage in Quebec. It's clear to us that the minimum wage has to rise because people who are paid minimum wage clearly live below the poverty line. The coalition is called Minimum $18 now, but we're increasingly aiming for a minimum wage of $20 an hour in Quebec. At least that's the coalition's view.

We're definitely in favour of raising the minimum wage in Quebec.


Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
NDP

On that note, the employer of course has the choice not to just stick with the minimum wage. They can offer higher wages right off the top, and not just go with the minimum wage requirement. I certainly support minimum wages going up. People cannot live on minimum wages, and that is absolutely the reality.

On the open work permit question as well, right now the government actually allows people to get an open work permit if they're subject to abuse, and that's after they have already experienced the abuse. You don't see people fleeing the sector. I have known workers who have been subjected to abuse, and with the help of the union, particularly the UFCW, they have gone to other employers, who were not abusing them, and stayed in the sector. These workers want to work. They want to make a good living to support themselves and their families.

On the notion of an open work permit, the idea that we have to hold on to an environment so they cannot leave, with a sectoral open work permit or a closed work permit, isn't that, in and of itself, part of the abuse of the system?


The Chair Sukh Dhaliwal
Liberal

Time is up.

If Mr. Pilon or Madame Gagnon could quickly answer the question, go ahead, please, with a quick answer.

 

Denise Gagnon
Vice-President, Board of Directors, Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Ms. Kwan, what you say is very important because the system is a problem even in unionized workplaces.

To cite a very specific example, a greenhouse in Saint-Félicien hired nearly 400 workers, but working conditions there were so harsh that all Quebec workers left. What's happening is that the Mexican workers who were members of the union committee were called back for a contract this year. So you can say they're losing their right to organize collectively. You can clearly see in that instance that the system is causing the problem.

The problem that arises in the case of open permits for vulnerable workers is that people are then blacklisted and aren't called back. We do follow-ups in Guatemala and Mexico. We're going to hold an international conference on this and other matters in December so we can come up with some potential solutions to the problem.

 

4:35 p.m.


Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
NDP

Thank you.

I want to continue with Ms. Gagnon.

You were talking earlier about employees getting blacklisted. If you make a complaint, you get blacklisted. That's something we've heard from other witnesses as well. From that perspective, with this whole concept of filing a complaint, while in theory it's supposed to work, in reality it's fraught with problems. Do you have any suggestions for the government on how to address that issue?

 

Denise Gagnon
Vice-President, Board of Directors, Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec

We're trying to build alliances. I know that we have colleagues upstream, in Mexico or Guatemala, who are monitoring the situation and negotiating ethnic selection systems with the governments. The Vérité organization's program in Mexico is an example of that.

However, we can never really get a handle on the problem because it gets hard to provide evidence since we don't have access to all the information.

I'd just like to add that we aren't involved in the sectoral permits pilot project in Quebec. So the evaluation has to be nuanced because you really have to see how it works in reality. Remember that the Canada-Quebec accord in 1978 didn't address the closed permits issue. For us, this is a new feature in the landscape that we have to deal with and that entails some problems.


Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
NDP

Canada used to have a program that brought in workers with a full range of skills. From what the NOC code considers a low skill to what is considered high skill, a whole range of skilled workers were brought to Canada with permanent resident status. They've done away with that. Now it's primarily focused on the so-called higher skill levels, even though these workers you're talking about are essential workers.

Would you advocate or support the call for the government to bring back an immigration policy for permanent resident status for the full range of skill sets that Canada needs for our labour market?

 

Denise Gagnon
Vice-President, Board of Directors, Réseau d'aide aux travailleuses et travailleurs migrants agricoles du Québec

Yes, I would completely support that call. We think we have to improve the pathway to permanent residence. Furthermore, people who want to work in the regions often want to stay there. That's a fact that we've observed. A member of our board who worked in Rimouski and Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean wants to live in the regions because that's where he learned his French and made his friends.

We don't think that kind of mobility is a problem. On the contrary, it also looks to me like a recognized fundamental right. And Canada has signed all the labour mobility agreements.


The Chair Sukh Dhaliwal
Liberal

Thank you, Ms. Kwan.

On behalf of the committee members, as the chair, I would like to thank Mr. Chambers, Mr. Pilon, Madame Gagnon and Mr. Borja Torres for being here and sharing important information with us. Thank you.

We will suspend the meeting for a few minutes before we go to an in camera meeting.

[Proceedings continue in camera]

Latest posts

CIMM#93: Closed Work Permits and Temporary Foreign Workers and Briefing on Recent Changes to International Student Policy and Plans for Future Measures

On the question around student housing, I absolutely think that it is essential for institutions and provinces do their part and I think that the federal government should show leadership and perhaps initiate a program wherein the federal government contributes a third of the funding, institutions provide a third of the funding, and the provinces and territories provide a third of the funding towards the creation of student housing, both for international students and domestic students. That way you can have a robust plan to address the housing needs of the students.

I'm going to park that for a minute and quickly get into the students who were subject to fraud. We have a situation in which students have now been cleared and found to be genuine by the task force, but they have not gotten their passports back yet. I don't know what the holdup is, and I wonder if the minister can comment on that.

Second, there are students who are still waiting to be evaluated by the task force, and the task force work can't proceed because they might be waiting for a date for the IRB to assess the question on their permit on whether or not it was genuine or whether or not there was misrepresentation. They are consequently in a situation in which people are just chasing their tails and they can't get to the task force.

On that question, will the minister agree that instead of making people go through that process with the IRB, the task force evaluation can move forward first so that they can be found to be either a genuine student or not a genuine student?

 

CIMM#92: Closed Work Permits, Temporary Foreign Workers and Committee Business

I want to thank the special rapporteur for joining us today at committee. I also very much appreciate your coming to Canada and looking into this issue.

As many of the witnesses have said to us, the issue around the immigration system as it's set up, with the closed work permit approach, is that it actually sets these workers up for exploitation. From that perspective.... It's not to say, as the Conservatives would suggest, that you were alleging that all employers abuse workers. I don't believe you said that at any point in time; rather, I think the issue is about the immigration system that Canada has.

Instead of having this closed work permit situation, what would you say is the remedy to address the exploitation that many of the migrant workers you spoke with directly experienced?

 

Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, United Nations, As an Individual
Tomoya Obokata

My recommendation is, certainly, to modify the closed nature of the program. If the workers are able to choose their employers at their own will, that reduces the instances of abuse and exploitation.

More importantly, whether it's closed or not, employers have to comply with the relevant legal obligations. I accept that a large number of employers already do. It's those others who do not who require further attention from the provincial and federal governments to see whether they can take appropriate law enforcement actions against those who breach labour standards legislation.

 

Jenny Kwan Vancouver East, BC
NDP

With respect to exploitation, one of the issues that migrant workers are faced with is that they don't have full status here in Canada; they have only temporary status. One issue that has been identified is the closed work permit. The other issue is in terms of having rights. Being able to have their rights protected also means that they have to have status here in Canada.

How would you suggest the policy side of things should be amended to ensure that these migrant workers have their rights protected?

CIMM#91: Government's Response to the Final Report of the Special Committee on Afghanistan and Committee Business

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I thank the committee members for supporting the last motion.

I have another motion that I'd like to move at this point. Notice has been given for it. It reads as follows:

That, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), the committee invite the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and the Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities and relevant officials together for two hours, or invite the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship with relevant officials for two hours, and the Minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities to appear separately with relevant officials for one hour to update the committee on:

(a) the work of the task force addressing the exploitation scheme targeting international students as many students are still reporting that they are in limbo and have not heard back from officials about their status;

(b) the measures taken by IRCC and institutions to help prevent and protect international students from fraud schemes;

(c) the justification to increase the financial requirements for international students by more than 100% to $20,635;

(d) the justification for putting a cap on international study permits; and

(e) the plans to address the housing crisis for international students and efforts made to collaborate with provinces, territories and post-secondary institutions.

I think the motion is self-explanatory on all elements, and I think we would benefit from having the two ministers appear before our committee. We've also deliberated this issue at length at another meeting, so in the interest of time, I won't revisit all of those points.

I hope committee members will support this motion.

 

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