Call them The Invisible Workers.
They pick fruit and vegetables sold in Canadian markets. They cook and serve meals at some restaurants. They’re live-in caregivers for the most needy people. They work in meat-processing plants, mines and remote bush camps, doing strenuous physical work that most people won’t do.
They do it for minimum wage, or less. While not working, many sleep in substandard housing, thousands of kilometres from their homes and families in places such as Mexico.
Canada profits greatly from the results of their labour, yet offers few gestures of appreciation or even recognition.
They’re often labelled migrant workers, although they’re officially classed as temporary foreign workers by the government paperwork that lets them work in Canada for a few months or an agricultural season.
Encouragingly, the federal government moved last week to ease the plight of these workers in a big way, announcing its intention to change the rules so temporary foreign workers would no longer be tied to the single employer under which their work permit was issued. Instead, the workers could move around and work for any government-approved employer within their specific sector, such as agriculture.
Judging by the way some Canadian employers have reportedly abused temporary foreign workers, the Liberal action is long overdue. A Canadian non-profit group, Justice for Migrant Workers, reports workdays of 15 hours, insufficient breaks, pay discrimination between migrant and non-migrant workers, gender discrimination, dismal housing, exposure to chemicals or pesticides without adequate safety training or gear, and racism from surrounding communities.
The shabby ways in which these workers are treated is a striking contrast to the value they present to the Canadian economy. Between 2006 and 2014, more than 500,000 temporary foreign workers were brought into Canada. The federal government recently said applications from employers who want to hire temporary foreign workers are up 25 per cent over last year because of increased demand.
Among Canadian provinces, Manitoba has been one of the most enlightened in offering fairer treatment. Temporary foreign workers have access to the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program, through which the province offers permanent residency to prospective immigrants with the skills and experience most needed in Manitoba. Also, Manitoba is one of only two provinces that provide provincial health care to migrant farm workers.
Critics say Manitoba could do even better by providing access to settlement services, including language instruction for all temporary foreign workers regardless of their skill level.
The federal government’s plan to release temporary foreign workers from a single employer and let them apply for sector-specific open work permits shows commendable intent, but it’s far from a done deal. The government said it will take submissions from interested parties for 30 days before moving ahead, and then, of course, there is the upcoming federal election to be considered.
Regardless of how the federal government is composed after the Oct. 21 vote, the current effort to help temporary foreign workers should be above partisan politics and should be pushed into law.
It’s about treating workers humanely, the importance of which has been repeatedly emphasized since a group of fairness-seeking Manitobans pushed over a streetcar 100 years ago last week. Call it a Manitoba thing. When we insist workers be treated with fairness and respect, that should include those from foreign countries.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.