Concerns about labour trafficking increase amid higher demand for migrant workers in Canada

New research shows that employer discrimination, unsafe working conditions and gaps in government policy put migrant workers at risk of being exploited once they arrive in Canada.

FCJ Refugee Centre and the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking’s newly released report, It Happens Here: Labour Exploitation Among Migrant Workers During the Pandemic, reveals that migrant labourers’ precarious immigration status makes them vulnerable to exploitation by recruiters and employers.

The report summarizes findings from a series of focus group discussions that convened 77 migrant workers in Ontario in early 2022, with the support of Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW). It highlights that many migrant workers are not aware that they have labour rights while working in Canada.

Some participants shared that they had been exploited in their home country and saw Canada as an opportunity to escape this form of abuse. As a result, many were surprised to learn this danger exists here. “I am still in shock because in Mexico I have heard about human trafficking, but I never thought I would be in this situation [in Canada]. I would always think: how could people fall into these situations? After this happened to me, I saw that it can happen to anyone,” said a focus group participant.

The report’s other findings include:

  • Migrant workers, especially those working in the agricultural and low wage sectors, are frustrated by policies that make it difficult to acquire permanent residency status and relocate their families to Canada.
  • Migrant workers’ primary concern is family separation, followed by low wages and employer discrimination.
  • Migrant workers’ safety was jeopardized due to limited healthcare access and COVID-19 testing, as well as by their inability to socially distance.

The report recommends that the federal and provincial governments implement additional safeguards to protect migrant workers from being exploited. More specifically, it calls on governments to:

  • establish Open Work Permits for all migrant workers;
  • ensure that migrant workers have greater access to information on their labour rights before, during, and after their arrival in Canada;
  • increase investments in on-site social services for migrants, including language training, legal aid, healthcare, and information on labour rights, and;
  • accelerate the federal government’s new family reunification policy for low wage and agricultural workers, and extend this policy to workers with young families.

“Migrant workers are essential to the Canadian economy and deserve justice, fairness, and appropriate attention from all levels of the government and employers. Many of them sacrifice time with their families to pursue work in Canada. Protecting them from being exploited in our communities should be a top priority for all of us,” said Julia Drydyk, Executive Director, The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. “Federal, provincial and municipal governments should increase funding to community organizations to provide more on-site services for low-wage migrant workers.”

In 2022, the Government of Canada announced a necessary policy change that will allow spouses and working-age children of migrant workers to relocate to Canada. Although this new policy will help address some concerns, additional steps are needed to reduce the exploitation of migrant workers.

“Migrant workers help Canada to fill critical labour shortages. With growing demand for new migrant labours, our concern about their safety and well-being is increasing. Unfortunately, existing policies can’t protect landed migrant workers who are already in a precarious situation, and will put new labours at higher risk of being victim of forced labour, discrimination and unsafe working conditions. This shocking reality should change before we welcome new migrant workers,” said Loly Rico, Executive Director, FCJ Refugee Centre.

Who is a migrant worker?

The term migrant workers refers to individuals who have moved to Canada to work, whether this was their primary intention or as a means of survival. In other words, they are foreign nationals who are not citizens nor permanent residents who engage in work in Canada.

Migrant workers can enter Canada via different programs, such as through the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which includes the Agricultural Stream and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

Migrant workers also include people who enter Canada through irregular means, including entering as a visitor and remaining in Canada without status.

What is labour trafficking?

According to the Government of Canada, “labour trafficking is a form of human trafficking that can happen in a number of different industries. It involves recruiting, moving, or holding victims to coerce them into doing any kind of work.”

While labour trafficking can take place anywhere, it is more common in sectors that employ low-wage workers (e.g., agriculture, caregiving, hospitality, construction, etc.). Labour trafficking occurs when employers:

  • withhold pay and documents;
  • make false promises about working conditions, responsibilities, or pathways to citizenship, and;
  • issue threats of deportation and other punishment if the migrant pursues their rights.

The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking operates the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline (1-833-900-1010), a confidential, multilingual service, operating 24/7 to connect victims and survivors of human trafficking, including labour exploitation with over 900 social and legal services nation-wide. 

For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact:

Aziz Froutan
Communications Manager
The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking

Carolina Teves
Associate Director, Communication and Access to Education
FCJ Refugee Centre

About the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking:

The Centre is a national charity dedicated to ending all types of human trafficking in Canada. We work with like-minded stakeholders and organizations, including non-profits, corporations, governments and survivors/victims of human trafficking, to advance best practices, eliminate duplicate efforts across Canada, and enable cross-sectoral coordination by providing access to networks and specialized skills. We operate the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010, a 24/7, multilingual access to a safe and confidential space to ask for help and connect to services.

About FCJ Refugee Centre:

FCJ Refugee Centre serves refugees and others at risk due to their immigration status, overcome the challenges of rebuilding their lives in Canadian society. With an open-door approach, we offer an integrated model of refugee protection, education, migrant worker and anti-human trafficking support, and settlement services, including shelter for women and their children. We ensure victims/survivors of human trafficking have access to orientation, legal assistance and referrals, information about their immigration options, appropriate housing, employment support, counseling and other forms of psycho-social support.