A recent police investigation into a “massive” migrant worker trafficking ring found that more than 64 workers, including a 15-year-old girl, were forced to work in “farms, factories and warehouses” across the Greater Toronto Area.
While the Ministry of Labour did not disclose the names of the companies that took advantage of these workers, we know that at least five properties were raided—in East Gwillimbury, Vaughan, Toronto, and Mississauga.
According to the police statement: “The foreign laborers described incidents of false promises, which included documentation, quality of housing, their work hours, and their pay. They also described living in deplorable conditions with dozens of people sleeping on mattresses on the floor, a lack of food, a lack of privacy and bug infestations.”
The conditions the workers faced, under constant threat, are appalling—including sexual assault, squalid boarding conditions, brutal hours, wage theft, and constant threats. However, these cases of abuse are not unique. Across Canada, many workers are lured into the country with “false promises,” of a better future.
On paper, all workers are covered by the Employment Standards Act providing minimum wage standards, workplace safety laws, and the like. But migrant workers have few protections in practice.
As CBC News notes, many of the workers themselves call the system “systematic slavery.” Bosses across Canada are effectively given a free hand to house migrant workers in hazardous, crowded duplexes close to their work, to cut costs and force them to work brutal hours—up to 16 hours a day or more, seven days a week, for months on end.
Denied work permits, these workers are bound to their bosses under the constant threat of deportation. And, in this case, to keep them from leaving, their passports were taken.
Worse, Ministry of Labour data show that the number of workplace safety inspections dropped from 3,500 in 2017 to just 215 last year. The data also show that the number of prosecutions for such violations dropped from 233 to 34 in the same period, in effect allowing bosses to abuse the most vulnerable workers.
The excuse used to justify these numbers is that the government was busy with pandemic responses. Yet the agricultural sector, where migrant workers represent 53 per cent of the workforce, was a hot spot for COVID-19 outbreaks that killed dozens of migrant workers. Meanwhile, there were record profits in the agricultural sector.
In light of the arrests made, the Ford government said its new legislation, Bill 79 or the Working for Workers Act, will increase fines for bosses who withhold migrants’ passports and/or work permits from $250 (less than a TTC fare evasion fine) to $100,000 under the existing Employment Protection for Foreigners National Act.
But as noted above, migrant workers say that the existing complaints structure hardly ever works. Beyond this, the process forces workers to “prove” that their passports have been confiscated and many others face language barriers and a lengthy paperwork process beyond that. Most importantly, nothing in the law will protect the workers who refuse unsafe work or file safety complaints from deportation. This places all the power in the bosses’ hands.
The indifference of the government when it comes to the lives of these vulnerable workers is nothing new. After all, this is a capitalist state that serves the needs of profit above all.
While the increased fine may seem like a steep penalty, Ontario’s labour laws include loopholes that bind workers to their employer for cheap labour, and without inspections, these laws mean little. These bosses will continue to be free to take advantage of vulnerable people and fill their pockets.
What these workers need is for the labour movement to take up their fight as part of the broader fight against capitalism. There needs to be a demand to scrap these racist laws that differentiate between the status of citizens and that of our fellow workers who contribute just as much to the wealth of society. These laws and procedures exist to create a vulnerable, super-exploitable layer of workers, which allows the bosses to lower the bar for wages and conditions for all workers. Keeping workers divided ensures that we remain, as Marx said, “raw material for exploitation”.
An injury to one is an injury to all, and the abuse migrants workers face is a gut wound that’s bled for far too long. By uniting as a class, we can put an end to oppression and exploitation and fight for a planned economy that ensures safe working conditions with resources available to all.