Image via Facebook.
Last week, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal awarded 55 tree planters $700K in relation to the mistreatment and ‘slave-like’ conditions they were forced to endure at the hands of their employer in a reforestation operation in Golden, BC. The Congolese refugees weren’t paid, were segregated from other workers, fed inferior food if they were fed at all, forced to plant on rougher terrain, and housed in shipping containers with no bathroom facilities or clean water. In the ruling—which sees $10,000 dollars awarded to each individual for injury to dignity and self-respect (which they might never see because the company is now bankrupt)—the Tribunal equated the conditions as “comparable to slave-ships” and the workers expressed feeling like prisoners.
This was all uncovered back in 2010, when officials from BC’s Ministry of Forests were visiting the camp to presumably check in to make sure trees were being planted properly, not that people were being treated humanely. So it must have been quite a shock to witness the appalling conditions these men were living and working in. And it begs the question: If a couple of inspectors from the Ministry of Forests hadn’t have stumbled across this abuse, would it have ever been reported? Where was the ministry responsible for labour and employment standards in all of this, and how many similar situations have gone unchecked or are currently being perpetrated in Canada in May, 2014?
Migrant workers make up the most vulnerable and desperate sector of the Canadian labour force. It’s within this system that barriers to reporting workplace abuses are palpable, intimidating, and the mechanisms to do so can be deluded and complex. Workers fall through jurisdictional cracks as they’re brought in by the federal government through programs like the currently hot-button Temporary Foreign Worker Program, but then get lost in the blurred oversight of employment standards, labour laws, and complaints or enforcement processes that vary from province to province.
As the CBC touched on earlier this week, in provinces like Saskatchewan, where systems exist for migrant workers to complain about poor working conditions, they are hardly ever used. Rather than look at the reasons behind why only 40 complaints have been made in Saskatchewan since 2008, the genius of a minister responsible for immigration there, Bill Boyd, told the CBC that he believes a lack of complaints represents that "the vast, vast majority of employers are extremely responsible when it comes to these types of things."
Meanwhile, if you step across the border into Manitoba, where they do surprise investigations and run sting operations targeting specific, suspected industries, they’ve found absurdly high numbers of employers breaking labour laws and abusing their workers. In Manitoba’s sushi restaurants for example, which rely heavily on foreign workers, 95 percent of the employers weren’t complying with employment standards. Yet Manitoba’s complaint numbers are similar to Saskatchewan’s.
As far as I can tell, from BC’s Employment Standards website, their process is the same as Saskatchewan’s—relying entirely on complaints and park rangers to stumble across abuses. Ontario is starting to implement a kind of hybrid system, with the Ministry of Labour accepting complaints along with the introduction of targeted blitzes of “industries that have a history of employment standards violations or industries that employ vulnerable workers” this spring and into 2015.
What’s clear is that a complaints based, reactive method of enforcement does next to nothing for workers whose rights are being abused. The problem is that vulnerable workers are scared to speak out and complain in the first place. They are likely to be unaware of their rights, distrustful of government, and under a threat from employers to keep things quiet. Language difficulties impose an added burden for many newcomers as well as a lack of skills or access to the internet. If you’re living situation is reduced to a shipping container in the middle of the forest—how are you going to download a ‘Self Help Kit’ to make a complaint to labour standards?
"To the extent that any of these processes depend on individual migrant workers coming forward and filing complaints, you're dreaming in Technicolor if you think there's going to be enforcement,” Fay Faraday, a lawyer with Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto told the CBC this week. In a report that she published this April for the Metcalf Foundation called “Profiting from the Precarious: How recruitment practices exploit migrant workers,” she recommends the following:
“The most significant shift must come from leveraging the federal and provincial government’s capacity to pursue proactive regulation and supervision of recruiters and employers. The goal should be to eradicate exploitative practice pre-emptively, so that a worker begins an employment relationship in a position of security rather than insecurity… The Manitoba model is built on a platform of proactive licensing of recruiters, proactive registration of employers, mandatory financial security provided in advance by recruiters, and proactive investigation and enforcement by the provincial employment standards branch.”
On Friday, upon hearing the BC Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling, Sebinyanja Wamwanga told the CBC “I thank God for all who help us for this case. It will encourage people to say, 'Oh, Canada is a country of law.”
As Farraday recommends, there needs to be more targeted and definitive oversight of high risk industries that include elements of surprise and sting similar to Manitoba’s enforcement in order to keep employers honest. That way, the pressure is taken off the most vulnerable to make the complaints and take the most risk. If this proactive enforcement method is working in Manitoba, then it should probably be adopted nationally. Unless taking advantage of foreign workers was actually the whole point all along.