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Ottawa proposes open permits for migrant workers who are abused

Ottawa proposes open permits for migrant workers who are abused
Canada
Migrant workers abused on the job will soon be able to break free from the restrictive work permits that tie their status in Canada to the very employers doling out the abuse.

Ottawa has announced it is planning to allow migrant workers, with proven allegations of mistreatment, to find employment elsewhere in Canada without fear of being penalized or sent home.

“With an open work permit, the worker would be able to look for new work immediately and escape the situation they had been facing,” immigration department spokesperson Peter Liang told the Star in an email.

“These proposed regulations, if adopted, are expected to reduce the likelihood that migrant workers would choose to endure mistreatment or abuse, and encourage employers to treat workers with respect.”

Of the 302,500 temporary foreign workers employed in Canada in 2017, according to the immigration department, about half, or 153,460, were on employer-specific work permits, issued primarily to caregivers and labourers in agriculture.

Advocates for migrant workers have long complained restricted work permits expose workers to employers’ abuse and exploitation, because workers fear that if they complain, they will lose their job, and, without an open permit allowing them to find work elsewhere, they must return to their home country.

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Currently, immigration officers do not have the power to issue new work permits to migrant workers in abusive circumstances and a complaint will trigger only an inspection of the employer.

Under the new plan , immigration officers will be allowed to issue open work permits to temporary foreign workers who can prove abuse. The proposal also exempts these workers the $155-processing fee for the new permit. Officers would determine when each new permit would expire, at which point, a worker would then have to secure a new restricted permit or leave the country.

Officials expect to receive around 500 open work permit applications each year from abused workers.

However, the proposed reforms don’t address the root cause of migrant workers’ vulnerability, which is their lack of job mobility, say some critics who urge Ottawa to offer open permits to all temporary foreign workers.

Under the proposed changes, critics say, the chances of obtaining an open permit would hinge on the whims of one immigration officer, and such uncertainty might dissuade abused workers from coming forward.

“This is not going to make a difference to most of the workers facing exploitation and rights violations,” says University of Windsor professor Vasanthi Venkatesh, who specializes in labour, immigration and citizenship laws, and chairs IAVGO, a workers’ compensation legal clinic.

“Immigration officers are not trained to adjudicate violations of labour law and human rights in the context of migrant workers and are ignorant of precarious work and realities on the ground. There’s no appeal process, (and so this is) giving undue power to a single officer.”

Syed Hussan of the Migrant Workers’ Alliance said that while the proposed changes are a step in the right direction, they need strengthening.

“It is deeply concerning that the regulations do not define ‘abuse’ and ‘risk of abuse.’ This is dangerous, because it leaves it up to the discretion of the person deciding the application. It could be defined very narrowly,” he said.

“It is concerning that the open work permit would not be renewable. If it expires, the worker would need to get a new permit. Employers are known to blacklist workers that speak out... Speaking out, and then getting a non-renewable permit therefore has a significant economic impact for workers who are already in debt to come work in Canada.”

Hussan said the plan must include a multilingual and comprehensive communication strategy to educate workers about access to the open permits, and offer relief for abused workers within 48 hours of a complaint because of the risk that an employer might quickly and forceably send them on a plane home.

Immigration officials said there is “a low risk” that migrant workers would fake a claim against employers in exchange for an open work permit because breaking an employment would still come at a cost financially and socially, and, if caught lying, a worker would be stripped of legal status in Canada.

Since 2017, with the foreign worker program and slapped with a fine and/or banned from hiring these workers. The department said in most cases, the transgressions were over payroll.

The new regulation is expected to take effect later this year, pending any further amendments following a 30-day public consultation that ends Tuesday .
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