Thousands of migrant workers, many from offshore, work in Southwestern Ontario. But when two showed up at the London train station last month after a cross-Canada journey to a place they’d never heard of, they underlined a gap in the law that critics say can keep workers tied to employers they’d rather leave. Jane Sims reports.When they stepped off the Via Rail train in London last month, Edy Morales and Alvaro Gil Asturias must have thought they’d landed on the moon.The two Guatemalan migrant workers were exhausted and scared. They came to Canada to work. They have debts and family at home.They’d been travelling across Canada for five days, heading to a city they’d never heard of and to a controversial pastor they hoped could help them.Both of them had come to Canada in November with contracts to work at a greenhouse in British Columbia.Morales, 20, and Gil Asturias, 30, had two-year work permits under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program tied to the business, where they say they spent long days tying pepper plants and living in a cramped quarters with 26 other people.They say they were overworked, abused verbally and ordered home after transgressions they said could have been resolved easily.But now they were in wintry London, desperate to find another job, but in a temporary labour pickle that could idle them for months.Home to one of Canada’s largest agricultural belts, Southwestern Ontario is no stranger to migrant farm labour. Thousands of workers, many from offshore, are employed each season by farms and food processors in the region, doing work many Canadians often won’t take.While the work provides opportunity and financial security to many who otherwise would not have it, with many returning to the same employers year after year, abuses are not unheard of.
Alvaro Gil Asturias and Edy Morales of Guatemala have come to Ontario looking for work, with minister Jose Callejas (centre rear) and Karin Callejas of London offering them assistance. Photograph taken on Thursday February 7, 2019. Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network
The dilemma facing the two men who took the train to London could mirror the experience of many more migrant workers whose stories never surface.Their hope, they thought, would be Pastor Jose Callejas, a Guatemalan immigrant who first came to Canada as a migrant worker in the 1990s and who oversees a small, mostly Spanish-speaking congregation at the Church of God Bethesda on Bessemer Road in London.But their predicament was his hot potato.The pastor is back operating Bethesda Agricultural Enterprises Inc., a recruitment business he set up in 2011 with his daughter, Karin, to match workers with local employers. They’d been on a self-imposed sabbatical after investigations at two South Huron agricultural businesses found 17 foreigners working at places that weren’t specified on their closed work permits.That led to charges in 2016 under the federal Refugee and Immigration Act and to Callejas pleading guilty a year ago. He maintains the workers had come to him with stories of abuse and mistreatment, and all he was trying to do was “a good deed.” He hadn’t taken the proper steps to check their work visas.The judge agreed and Callejas was given a six-month conditional sentence and a $10,000 fine. The pastor and his daughter stepped back from the recruiting business for a year, fearing any more missteps.“We were innocent in our hearts, we were never thinking of doing anything against the law or causing problems to our community or Canada,” Karin Callejas said.Only in the last few weeks, they say, have they carefully kick-started the business, this time under self-imposed, strict guidelines, dealing only with permanent residents to make sure there are no more problems.Then, “these guys show up at our door.”“These guys, they come here to work,” the pastor said. “They’re not criminals. They come here for a living, a better life.“They do the jobs our Canadians don’t want to do. They want to do things the right way. They want to stay here for the time they’re allowed and when they are done their contract, they will go back to their country.”This is not a new story. Accounts of mistreatment and exploitation of temporary workers are common, advocates say.Last week, there was what may have been a stark example of what can happen in the largely unregulated labour market. Forty-three Mexican migrant workers who’d been promised work permits and permanent residency, police say, were forced to work for a cleaning company in the Barrie and Wasaga Beach area and live in filthy conditions.An OPP deputy commissioner called the situation “modern-day slavery.”But there are avenues for help, thanks to efforts of trade unions and advocacy groups who have lobbied the federal government for changes to protect newcomers, many of whom are fleeing poverty and violence in impoverished countries and speak a different language.What could be the most significant change to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in years was announced in December when Ottawa agreed to allow open work permits — job permits not tied to specific employers — for temporary workers who can prove they are abused, allowing them to secure other jobs with no penalty.Now, it takes up to six months for a migrant worker to get an open permit after leaving a job, dead time most workers — who tend to send their wages home — can’t afford.Advocates call that change in labour law a good start, but say so much more can be done to protect the labour rights. There’s intense lobbying to give temporary workers permanent residency status that would let them move freely in the job market, a pivotal step to protect them from exploitation and abuse.Morales, 20, and Gil Asturias, 30, had only been in the country since November. Morales, who looks barely old enough to shave, says he came to Canada to help his mother, wife, three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.“I came to Canada because I wanted to build them a house,” he said, speaking in Spanish translated by Karin Callejas.He said he was working “very fast” tying pepper plants when he accidentally pulled a string that knocked open a plastic box and set off an alarm. Morales said he was yelled at, called “dumb” and scolded for not reading the English-only signs. He was sent back to the living quarters for three days, he said.Gil Asturias said he has a wife and two sons at home. He worked in Canada years before at another job in B.C. He came back to help pay a large debt that was run up from his wife’s small restaurant.On Christmas Eve, he said he went to his pastor’s home and returned to the living quarters 10 minutes late. Management claimed he was drunk, he said. His pastor vouched for him, saying there was no alcohol at the dinner, Gil Asturias said.Gil Asturias became ill with a fever and sore throat. He said no medications were offered and that his boss told him to “just drink water.” He kept working in the packaging area of the greenhouse and his co-workers told him to go home because he was so ill, he said.Still very sick, he decided to go back to work. He said he was hauled into an office where a supervisor said no one told him why he was absent. Then, he said, he was told he was being sent back to Guatemala.The Free Press reached out to the men’s former employer by phone and email, seeking comment, but had received no reply.Gil Asturias’s B.C. pastor contacted Jose Callejas by email, then sent the two men east to Ontario. They’ve found shelter with another worker they know at a London hotel.Jose Callejas said the men need an open work permit so they can get other jobs and start making money again.They have huge debts. What are they going to do? The bank is going to take their homesJose Callejas“How can they have the heart to send them home after two months?” he said. “They have huge debts. What are they going to do? The bank is going to take their homes.”There’s help available if the men need it, said Syed Hussan, co-ordinator for the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.The men didn’t need to leave B.C., he said. They could have filed a labour grievance, applied for an open permit program already up and running in B.C. or applied for employment benefits until their work permits could be changed.Both men can stay in Canada for the duration of their permits. “These workers just need some basic assistance,” he said. “I would be happy to talk them through their options.”Hussan’s organization, a national body representing self-organized groups of migrant workers, offers individual support but also lobbies Ottawa for change.“The overwhelming majority of our members are facing unpaid wages, stolen wages, lack of overtime, lack of proper breaks, lack of predictable scheduling, lack of protection from basic human rights abuses, and lack of immigration status,” he said.“Employers, as well as labour law, as well as immigration law, cumulatively create conditions of exploitation that are the norm.”The government has said at least 18 per cent of the migrant workforce faces abuse.Hussan disagreed. “We believe frankly, (it’s) well over 90 per cent of workers,” he said.Agricultural workers, in particular, face exploitation, he said, under the existing immigration and labour system with no provisions for overtime and a mandated hourly work week. He added that the seasonal work program has been around for 53 years, which is proof it’s a permanent labour program — and it deserves permanent residency solutions now not offered.“People who are poor can come here only to work when they are tied to an employer, only to be exploited, only to be here temporarily, while richer people with more economic resources can come here and live permanently,” he said.Also, he said, the government should put strict guidelines on recruiters who often charge high fees to come to Canada. There are no regulations or restrictions on the books now.Santiago Escobar, national representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, agreed.“If government was serious and wants to prevent the exploitation in Canada, one important step is to control the temp and recruitment agencies,” he said.A worker could pay thousands of dollars to a recruiter to come to Canada, often with borrowed money. Once in Canada, no matter the work conditions, workers will keep silent because of the debts on their shoulders and the fear of reprisals at home, Escobar says.It is “a horrible way of controlling workers,” he said.The union says it has heard the worst of all it from workers who have accessed its agricultural worker support centres.Escobar said the federal government’s pledge for open work permits is a step “in the right direction, but more has to be done.“Unfortunately, the employers have all the power. There is no mechanism to make employers accountable,” he said.“That’s why it’s important these open work permits for vulnerable workers, for abused workers will be implemented so workers can use it as a tool to report bad employers and move to another employer.”Unfortunately, the employers have all the power. There is no mechanism to make employers accountableSantiago EscobarEscobar said the government has a responsibility to give workers the information they need about their labour rights, health and safety. He said a third party, like a union, should be involved to make sure communication is made. That training should be mandatory.Ultimately, unionizing protects vulnerable workers. In Manitoba, he said, UFCW Canada helped 3.000 temporary workers at a Maple Leaf plant apply for permanent residency, a move he said was a win for both the workers and the company, which could rely on a dedicated workforce.However, Ontario is the only province that has banned migrant workers from unionizing.“This model could be an alternative to a broken immigration system,” he email@example.com/JaneatLFPressTEMPORARY FOREIGN WORKERSNationwide, nearly 79,000 work permits were issued in 2017. That includes caregivers, agricultural workers and others. Women account for 95 per cent of home caregiver permits and men the same ratio of permits given for agricultural work. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union says it has handled more than 60,000 cases of workers who say they’ve been abused or need help. Many foreign workers don’t know their rights and need help fighting for them, the UFCW says.