‘They all were labour abused’: Demanding action on the exploitation of migrant workers

Rogelio Muñoz Santos died in a Windsor hospital in early June. Advocates say that he was the victim not just of COVID-19 — but also of a predatory system
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jun 26, 2020
Advocacy groups are calling for greater regulation of migrant-worker temp agencies. (iStock/Andrii Yalanskyi)

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Rogelio Muñoz Santos entered Canada via Toronto in March as a tourist. On June 5, the Mexican citizen, in his early 20s, died in a hospital in Windsor. He was Canada’s second migrant worker to succumb to COVID-19, and the agencies that support migrant workers say his situation showed several signs of human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation. “They all were labour abused,” says Luis Mata, who coordinates the anti-human trafficking program at Toronto-based FCG Refugee Centre, of Muñoz Santos and roughly 40 others whom his agency has determined were lured to Canada to work.

Advocates hope that what happened to Muñoz Santos will raise awareness about the labour exploitation of migrant workers through human trafficking and are calling on the province for action. “I think that case is really indicative of many, many people who come to Canada,” says Shelley Gilbert, coordinator of social services at Legal Aid Windsor.

Muñoz Santos was not undocumented — he had electronic travel authorization, she says. However, like the estimated half a million workers in Canada without any sort of government documentation, he lacked authorization to work here — a situation that can lead to exploitation by unscrupulous temporary-employment agencies. “They’re exploiting the fact that the agriculture business and different industries are desperate for workers, and so can exploit the desperation, both of the industry and of the individuals,” Gilbert says. “Because the individuals don’t know what the laws are, they don’t know what the process is, they don’t know the language, they don’t know the culture, then they become very reliant on their trafficker to explain and help them to navigate the various systems that we have here.”

According to Public Safety Canada, human trafficking “involves the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour.” It is an offence under the Criminal Code and Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Many victims in labour schemes arrive under programs such as the Temporary Foreign Worker Program or the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. The permits that allow them to work legally in Canada are tied to a single employer, so if workers leave their employer, they forfeit their permit to work — regardless of the reason for departure. Others are recruited by agencies before they leave their own country.

Mata says he interviewed two other men recruited by the same company as Muñoz Santos. The men worked and roomed with Muñoz Santos and say that he was contacted by one recruiter in Mexico and then another once he was in Canada. Mata shared details from the interview transcripts with TVO.org on condition that the undocumented workers would remain anonymous (he did not share the transcripts themselves). The two workers have left the recruiter, but “some [of the 40 others recruited] are still in contact with the recruiter,” he says. “And they are afraid.”

The first recruiter advertised packages for people to come to Canada that offered “work and study opportunities and a future,” Mata says. One of the men told Mata he’d paid $3,000 for a package that included a month of English lessons, a transit pass, free entrance to the CN Tower, and a trip to Niagara Falls. Once in Canada, the man saw the course “was a lie,” says Mata, and he left. But he needed money to pay back the lender he’d tapped to finance the package. “Suddenly, through Facebook, a notice appeared,” Mata says. The worker was offered 70 hours a week and $16 per hour, housing, and food. The two workers and Muñoz Santos accepted, says Mata, and all three departed for Leamington in a cramped, over-capacity van. The workers were told that the risk of COVID-19 was “very exaggerated,” he says.

At first, they lived in a house with 18 other people, all undocumented. “They didn’t have enough food,” Mata says. Each day, they travelled an hour each way in another packed van to work at Greenhill Produce, east of Chatham. The recruiter had turned the workers over to a Canadian contractor, Mata says. They worked a reduced 40 to 50 hours a week, and deductions — such as $400 a month each for accommodation — further eroded their $16-per-hour wage. They were charged for transportation, including $150 for the trip from Toronto, and food. (TVO.org reached out to Greenhill Produce, but it had not provided comment by publication time.)

Mata says the workers complained and were moved to a motel in Leamington, where four people shared two double beds in one room. The recruiter did not provide personal protective equipment or inform them of how to physically distance, even though, by March 17, the provincial government had declared a state of emergency. Both contracted COVID-19, although they weren’t as badly affected as Muñoz Santos. “They told the contractor and the recruiter that they weren’t feeling well,” Mata says. Eventually, in late May, Muñoz Santos and one of the men finally sought help from nearby Erie Shores HealthCare. The hospital admitted Muñoz Santos and transferred him to a hospital in Windsor, where he died; the other worker was released and went back to the motel.

There were multiple hallmarks of labour trafficking, Mata says — a false promise by the first recruiter that an opportunity to work legitimately awaited them if they came to Canada, and misleading information from the second recruiter about the other job. Coercion is often more difficult to establish, as the physical restraint or assaults used to control workers in sex trafficking typically don’t occur, Mata explains. Workers are often warned that if they speak to anyone, police or other officials could learn of their lack of status, and they could end up being deported, he says: “And a person who has a loan from a money lender, and a person who has to spend all their savings to come to Canada and has already paid money to have the opportunity for this work — this person prefers to stay in the place of exploitation.”

The plight of undocumented workers has been an issue since well before the arrival of COVID-19. In June 2019, the federal government introduced an open work permit — which is not tied to a specific job — for vulnerable workers (according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, there have been 97 open work permits issued in Ontario to date — 53 since January 1).

For undocumented workers who have been exploited, however, the main recourse is a temporary-resident permit for victims of human trafficking (workers may also qualify for refugee or acceptance on humanitarian and compassionate grounds). Gilbert says, though, that these six-month permits are difficult to get — and even more difficult to renew. (In 2019, IRCC issued 90 of these permits to workers in Ontario and renewed five.) They’re adjudicated by officials who “come from a white-privilege place, a place of Canadian immigration status and citizenship, and don't appreciate it in the context of this individual with no status and no real opportunity in their country of origin to turn things around or take care of their family,” she says. “You have to show evidence that you are a victim of human trafficking.”

Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for the IRCC, tells TVO.org by email that the federal department has recently translated instructions for filling out a temporary-resident permit for victims of human trafficking into 20 languages. “New guidance has recently been given to officers for assessing these types of applications in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including additional examples of what constitutes abuse and risk of abuse,” she adds.

At the provincial level, advocacy groups want greater regulation of migrant-worker temporary-employment agencies. British Columbia and Manitoba have created legislation that specially targets these recruiters. The B.C. legislation requires not only licensing, but also a public registry for recruiters and public information about violators.

Janet Deline, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, tells TVO.org via email that, since April 21, the ministry has been conducting on-farm inspections focusing on migrant-worker safety. "Our targeted inspections have resulted in over 225 visits and 81 orders being issued, including orders specially for failure to share information with workers and failure to report occupational illnesses," she writes. "Our inspectors are specifically trained to recognize indicators of human trafficking and refer cases for victim support and criminal investigation."

The ministry is also conducting a blitz on temporary-employment agencies, she adds, noting that 17 are being investigated by the ministry's employment-standards branch, and three have been referred to the Canada Revenue Agency. "Just yesterday, we announced we’re teaming up with federal inspectors and local public health official to conduct the first joint inspections on farms in the Windsor-Essex region," she writes. "Together, inspectors will look at workplaces and living quarters which is key because provincial inspectors don’t have jurisdiction over the bunkhouses."

However, Loly Rico, co-director of FCG, would like to see regulation similar to B.C.’s in Ontario, open work permits for all migrant-worker programs, and better opportunities for establishing permanent residence.

Rico and the other advocates also want the federal government to provide both documented and undocumented workers with residency privileges during the COVID-19 crisis. (In Ontario, all workers under the seasonal agricultural-workers program qualify for provincial health insurance, but holders of TFW permits must also meet other requirements to qualify for the insurance.)

Ensuring workers feel safe to access health services if they feel ill “is to the country’s benefit, to the province’s benefit to really in a way control COVID-19,” Rico says.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship tells TVO.org email that “everyone deserves to work in a safe environment” and that the safety of foreign workers is a priority for the government: “As the Prime Minister said, we need to reimagine our Temporary Foreign Worker program and how we can better protect workers—and considering pathways is a part of that.”

“I think it’s a moral obligation from the Government of Canada to really start looking at them,” Rico says — all migrant workers, documented and undocumented alike — “as they are contributing to the economy of Canada.”

​​​​​​​This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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