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Canada Has A Migrant Worker Mistreatment Problem

Here's the thing: The mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar that Rex Murphy is seemingly so upset about (at least, according to his recent column on the topic) is very similar to what migrant workers face in Canada. And I can prove it.
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Yesterday pundit and columnist Rex Murphy wrote a biting column in the National Post demanding ideological consistency from Leap Manifesto co-author Avi Lewis. In it, Rex Murphy points out a myriad of abuses by the Qatari state, which funds Al Jazeera News. Avi Lewis of course is a former journalist (or 'journalist' according to Rex Murphy) with Al Jazeera. Referring to Stephen Lewis's much touted critique at the NDP convention of Trudeau's arm sales to Saudi Arabia, Rex Murphy lists a series of human rights abuses particularly against women migrant workers in Qatar for evidence of Avi Lewis's ideological inconsistency (my thoughts on critiques of the Saudia arms sales are here).

Here's the thing. The mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar that Rex Murphy is seemingly so upset about is very similar to what migrant workers face in Canada.Let me explain.

Rex Murphy refers to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report and quotes:

"Domestic migrant workers, almost all women, are especially vulnerable. In addition to the problems the general migrant worker population face, they are also subject to verbal, physical, and in some cases, sexual abuse. Some are not allowed to speak to strangers or are locked up in the homes where they work. Many do not receive a day off. They are not afforded any protection under Qatari labour law."

In Canada, migrant workers are only allowed to work for the employer listed on their work permit and cannot easily change jobs. Low-wage immigrant workers are unjustly. denied permanent residency status when they arrive here. Working here without full immigration status, migrants are covered by a patchwork of labour and federal laws that do not allow basic protections that most Canadians take for granted.

In May of 2014, two migrant workers sisters supported by Justicia for Migrant Workers and UNIFOR won over $200,000 at the human rights tribunal in Ontario. The sisters, known only as O.P.T. and M.P.T., alleged that the fish processing and packaging plant's former owner, Jose Pratas, 74, would routinely engage in acts of a sexual nature ranging from inappropriate touching to forced copulation, with Pratas threatening to send them back to Mexico if they did not comply or complained to authorities. Such cases are not exceptional, and in most cases many other migrant workers never speak out.

Occupational Health and Safety Acts in most parts of the country specifically exclude domestic workers, most of whom are migrants. Marites Angana, was a live-in caregiver who suffered a head injury from a fall in her employer's garage on Nov. 28, 2014 and she died of a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 2 at Toronto Western. She left behind a 13-year-old son who lives in Philippines. No investigation has taken place into her death as Ontario laws simply don't allow it. As Caregivers Action Centre member, and herself a Caregiver, Liza Draman insisted, "We want Marites' death to be a reminder that caregivers and migrant workers live here, work here, fall sick here and sometimes die here. Ontario laws must protect us too". And Ontario's laws don't.

Rex Murphy goes on to quote this from Human Rights Watch insisting things are much better in Canada

"workers can become undocumented when employers report them as having absconded, or when they fail to pay to renew workers' annual ID cards. A lack of proper documentation leaves workers at risk of arrest and detention or deportation. It also leaves them at risk of further labour exploitation. Authorities rarely, if ever, bring criminal prosecutions against employers for violating Qatar's labour or anti-trafficking laws."

In Canada, when workers speak out about employer abuse, or are injured, employers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program simply deport them -- which is euphemistically termed 'repatriation'.

In July 2015, employers reported four workers in Okanagan, BC to the RCMP for having 'absconded', the local police issued their names, photographs, and passport numbers in a press release that was duly published by newspapers across the region (video). Local agricultural worker advocacy organization RAMA rightly called the RCMP actions 'sensational and overtly racist which reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes of Mexicans as criminals'.

Migrant workers are only allowed to work for one employer -- who often pay minimum wage (many times below minimum wage), and almost never pay overtime pay, holiday pay or vacation pay. When workers engage in a second job or if they take on work between work -- leaving them 'at risk of arrest and detention or deportation. It also leaves them at risk of further labour exploitation' exactly like in Qatar.

Just in the first three months of this year, a joint police and border enforcement project called Project Guardian has raided 40 different migrant worker homes and workplaces who 'absconded', i.e. left abusive employers and were therefore working without proper documentation. At least 13 workers have been deported.

And finally on trafficking. In Canada, this is called recruiting, and outside of Manitoba, there isno comprehensive recruiter regulations. The few instances of bad recruiters hitting the press notwithstanding, employers are almost never charged by the government. This is why -- in at least one rare instance -- migrant workers have turned to the civil courts suing Mac's Convenience Stores for promising jobs that didn't exist, charging $8,000/worker.

All this isn't to say that Canadian laws are just as bad or worse than Qatar. For the last 50 years, migrant and immigrant workers have organized and created better laws, and continue to fight to do so. In many instances, Qatari laws and treatment of migrant workers is qualitatively worse than Canada -- but often not by that much.

So, Rex Murphy, Canada is the problem. Maybe instead of cheering on how much greater we are, perhaps you could be part of making life for migrant workers here in Canada better. Feel free to reach out and we can talk about it.

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