One recent Friday evening I drove with a man called El Tigre to a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Vancouver. El Tigre—whose real name is Raul Gatica—is a political refugee from Mexico who now runs the Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association (MWDA), a not-for-profit body set-up to represent the interests of foreign labourers in BC. He was given the nickname by the workers at some point, but he can’t remember when or why. “Maybe it’s because I’m small but brave and formidable,” he told me. “I don’t know. Something like that.”
At the farm, Raul introduced me to a dozen or so labourers, most of whom were also Mexican. Their stories were all the same. The work is backbreaking and a single shift can last for up to 12 hours. They live on-site in cheaply constructed housing units. The pay is abysmal. The employers are bullying and punitive. They felt isolated, invisible, and abused. “We want the same rights as Canadians,” one guy said, as he lifted bundles of lettuce and pak choi from the earth. “It’s a simple thing to ask.”
The election of an NDP government to the BC legislature in June could trigger sweeping changes to the status of temporary foreign workers in the province. New Premier John Horgan plans to create a registry of their names, where they work, and when their work permits expire. Horgan says the registry is necessary for two reasons: first, it will help improve labour market policy by expanding the available economic data, and second, it will clamp down on exploitative employment practices.
But questions remain. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear who qualifies as a temporary foreign worker. I arrived in Vancouver six months ago from the UK as part of Canada’s international mobility program, and I’m here on temporary status, competing for Canadian jobs. Yet I’m not sure if I will have to join the registry, or if the reforms will only apply to specific groups of short-term, seasonal workers.
NDP government officials couldn’t offer much clarity when I contacted them: “The details of the registry, unfortunately, will have to wait because it has only been created and will need the opportunity to get the framework established more fully before offering details on the data being collected,” a press officer at the BC Labour Ministry told me.
Moreover, among the most vocal supporters of the registry are the BC labour unions, which—in addition to being major donors to Horgan’s party—have long argued that temporary foreign workers soak-up low-wage jobs in the service and agricultural sectors, depressing pay for Canadian employees and boosting Canadian unemployment rates. “The [temporary foreign worker initiative] is presently being used by employers to bring in a supply of less-skilled, low-wage workers,” the BC Federation of Labour noted in a report in 2014. “This is not how the program was originally designed.” I contacted the BC Federation of Labour numerous times for this story but they did not get back to me.
Canada first opened its doors to temporary foreign workers in the early 1970s, with the aim of attracting highly skilled professionals from Europe. But in 2002 the policy was widened to allow a much broader range of workers into the country.
This change was welcomed by employers and big companies, who saw the steady flow of cheap immigrant labour—mostly from Mexico and Central America—as an opportunity to slash their wage overheads, as well as to fill positions that many Canadians didn’t want. Dogged by party political criticism and a lack of proper oversight, it has been a source of intense controversy ever since. According to (outdated) official estimates, there are between 60,000 and 70,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada, with the majority based in BC, Ontario, and Alberta, although experts say the real figure could be much higher.
Horgan’s proposals are expected to draw on legislation that has existed in Manitoba since 2009. In Manitoba, businesses have to register with the provincial authorities in order to secure a permit to hire workers from abroad, and special investigators can fine companies that mistreat employees.
Dominique Gross, who is a professor of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, and before that worked as an economist for the IMF and the International Labour Office in Geneva, believes a similar system is urgently needed in BC.
“It’s definitely time to know what the impact of the temporary foreign worker program has been on the labour market,” she told me. “[A registry] would provide the information regarding which types of skills and occupations have an excess of supply and which have a lack of supply.”
Professor Gross added that greater transparency surrounding the working conditions of foreign labourers would make it easier to tackle systemic abuse.
“It’s quite clear that if temporary foreign workers complain, they will get fired,” she said. “[But with a registry] it will be up to the government to control what the firms are doing. We can’t keep telling the workers to complain, complain, complain, when it’s well known that they don’t want to complain because they don’t want to lose their jobs.”
Improved transparency and visibility are Raul’s key concerns, too. But he is suspicious about where the real loyalties of the NDP government, and wants the workers themselves to be consulted as the registry is developed. “I guess we want to give the benefit of the doubt to Mr. Horgan,” he said. “But he has to guarantee the participation of the workers in all the matters that affect them. You want a registry? Then ask us what we are thinking.”
Raul’s ambivalence was echoed by another group of farm workers he introduced me to. They described how they sometimes work six or seven days a week picking fruit in baking hot-houses on the rural fringes of Metro Vancouver. If they get sick, it’s difficult to see a doctor, because they don’t have access to Spanish language services, and their requests for holiday pay are dismissed out of hand. For demanding something as basic as better pay, they run the risk of being sacked, and if they get sacked, they get deported. “It’s racial discrimination, it’s like forced labour,” one of the men—who, like the rest of his colleagues, didn’t want to be named—told me.
Yet, despite these conditions, none of the workers said they had received any concrete support from the BC unions, or even that the unions had made any effort to contact them. As a result, they felt stranded; cut off from their families back home and detached from the rest of Canadian society.
Raul is well aware of the injustices in the Canadian immigration system, but he isn’t sure yet if they are going to be eliminated by John Horgan’s registry, or amplified by it. Above all, he believes that temporary foreign workers need to force their own way into the debate. “The only thing that can make the politicians move is these workers,” he says. “If we stand up together, any government—Liberal, NDP, Conservative—they will listen to us, and then we will feel respected.”