The time for solutions and justice for migrant workers in Canada has come. United voices of migrant workers from different continents and nationalities and several organizations, including Migrante, Collaborative Network to End Exploitation, FCJ Refugee Centre, human rights activists, and advocates, met on November 12th in Edmonton, Alberta. The event was financially supported by CUPE, UFCW, the United Church of Canada and the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada. It aimed to create a space for migrant workers to organize and discuss solutions to injustices they face in Canada.

The gathering was full of testimonies and experiences of work and struggles for labour rights in Canada. In a panel, several women migrant workers raised their voices to share the sacrifices made and the labour exploitation they faced in Canada. Those injustices happen in many industries, including agriculture, care work, construction, cleaning and airport services.

The first panellist, a young woman from Trinidad and Tobago, talked about justice and the experiences of many workers in Canada. She had to endure unpaid overtime, long working days, and pressure to accept working shifts that “were not described at all on the contract I signed,” she said. Despite the abuse and discrimination, she survived the situation and became an advocate for migrant worker’s labour rights. She said:

I have always been willing to answer questions or give orientation on employment standards to other vulnerable workers in need.

The second panelist, a visual artist and undocumented migrant worker from Mexico, displayed her paintings, vividly depicting the humiliation and frustrations faced by many other undocumented migrants in Canada. The artist spoke passionately about the inhumane treatment she was subjected to as an undocumented pregnant woman and the struggles she faced for five years. She came to Canada following a false promise of a work permit that she never received. The pandemic and the fact that she couldn’t afford a lawyer since their fees are unattainable for a vulnerable, impoverished, undocumented migrant worker in Canada aggravated her situation.

The artist, who was pregnant at that time, was facing precarious access to health services.

When I went for health support, I realized that I was not going to be part of any registry, that practically I was invisible, ignored and isolated in this so-called nice country. I was unable even to rent a place to have a home. All these experiences made me understand how difficult life is for a low-wage migrant in Canada. What surprised me the most was that it does not matter that you may have a Canadian child; they are also vulnerable and have restricted access to services for having a parent with a precarious immigration status. However, I am not alone in Canada; I am not the only one; there are many stories of pain and frustration in the so-called country of human rights. We need to raise our voices!

The artist finished by expressing her deep commitment to justice with a firm voice calling for respect for the human rights of migrants in Canada. The artist stated:

How is this fair? After I had been scammed and oppressed, and I spent years of my life working and being exploited, I had to go back to Mexico without justice! Something is wrong with this system.

The third speaker, Vangie, a resilient Filipino woman, also shared her experience. Vangie expressed her gratitude to Migrante Alberta for helping and supporting her in navigating the system and fighting a harsh deportation order! She said:

I worked first in a fast food workplace where I faced exploitation, then in 2015 I gave birth to a daughter. I didn’t have a daycare for her, which added to my challenges and expensive life in Canada. This made me realize that even a Canadian baby, born to a migrant worker, also has limited access to services.

I worked first in a fast food workplace where I faced exploitation, then in 2015 I gave birth to a daughter. I didn’t have a daycare for her, which added to my challenges and expensive life in Canada. This made me realize that even a Canadian baby, born to a migrant worker, also has limited access to services.

Difficult circumstances and inequalities brought me here, and this is how the system works,” said Vangie with a broken voice. “After all this hard work I have done in Canada, I feel my daughter and I belong here. This is a country where I have spent my life, my health and my strength working in many survival jobs, especially those jobs that others from here do not want to do, including removing dangerous hazardous materials, cleaning washrooms, and several other hard, low-paid jobs. Now, I continue advocating because I want others to avoid facing what I have experienced. I am dedicating my life to walking with others for justice and regularization, helping others to overcome labour abuse and exploitation!

Marco, the Executive Director of Migrante Alberta, briefly shared the campaign Migrante Alberta organized to support Vangie and her daughter Makena. The campaign title was Let McKenna and Vangie stay in Canada! Marco explained:

They have history, they are human beings, they brought their skills, their knowledge, their enthusiasm, their wisdom; also, they have names and faces; these are just a few reasons why we put together the campaign and requested that they deserve to stay.

After the panel discussion, a migrant worker nurse by training who came to Canada as a farm worker, joined the three women and shared her own experiences, dreams and disappointments.

When I got my employer-tied work permit, I thought it was a good opportunity. However, what I found in Canada was a nightmare- unpaid overtime, illegal deductions from my salary, duties and tasks beyond my capacity and discrimination. When I complained, I got threats of deportation; also, I knew that other workers who also complained were threatened with not being invited to Canada ever again!

When she contacted a lawyer to remedy her exploitative situation, she was asked to pay $5,000. The fee was for the lawyer’s assistance in finding an employer for Lucy with a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to be able to stay in Canada and continue working. She secured a position as a care worker in a private household. Lucy was once again hired on a tied-work permit, exacerbating her vulnerabilities to abuse. Her employer took advantage of her precarious immigration situation to sexually harass and exploit her.

The closed work permit system allows employers to abuse workers with impunity. This is a systemic issue that migrant workers and supporters have denounced. In a recent visit to Canada, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery criticized that system, stating:

I am deeply disturbed by accounts of exploitation and abuse shared with me by migrant workers. Employer-specific work permit regimes, including certain temporary foreign workers programmes, make migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation.”

By the end of the gathering, there was a broad consensus about denouncing Canada’s exploitive immigration and labour system and also the root causes forcing people to leave their countries for job opportunities elsewhere. This includes the role of Canadian mining corporations overseas in polluting lands, depleting local communities of needed resources or displacing them.

This National Migrant Workers gathering in Edmonton is a sequence of conversations we must continue as a Collaborative Network to End Exploitation. Peaceful, strong and united resistance is needed until justice is served! That was one of the most powerful statements from the migrant workers’ forum in Edmonton!