Exploitation is a complex phenomenon touching upon various social, economic and legal aspects of our society.

Exploitation exists on a spectrum:

Labour Violations

These violations exist in terms of worker safety and employment.

They include but aren’t limited to: unsafe conditions, violence, sexual abuse, excessive hours, withheld wages and unpaid labour.

Human Rights Violations

Human rights are breached when individuals experience discrimination, harassment, slavery, isolation, confinement and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This can happen to migrant workers or exist in situations like forced begging and marriage.

Criminal Code Violations

Employers commit a crime when they take and withhold a worker’s passport and identification, practice fraud and extortion, make threats, or subject their workers to violence and/or harassment.

Human Trafficking

Exploitation violates areas of the criminal code that are specific to human trafficking when there is punishment, threats of deportation or towards workers’ families, forced prostitution and/or psychological control of migrant workers.


Individuals have some legal remedies available along the spectrum of exploitation:

Labour Violations

Remedies: Workers can file labour standards complaints and pressure their employer for better treatment.

Potential Outcomes: There may be a labour justice response as well as civil or administrative sanctions against the employer.

Human Rights Violations

Remedies: Individuals can file a complaint with a Human Rights Commission (but not all provinces have them).

Potential Outcomes: A Human Rights Tribunal response may ensure appropriate treatment.

Criminal Code Violations

Remedies: Individuals can contact the police or any law enforcement agency and call for help.

Potential Outcomes: There may be damages awarded, prosecution and a criminal justice response.

Human Trafficking

Remedies: Individuals can contact the police and seek a response based on the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Potential Outcomes: Individuals may receive damages and the perpetrators could be prosecuted.

For migrant workers, the potential outcomes could support immigration claims.

Based on information from the Canadian Council for Refugees report, Human Trafficking and the Law.

All these remedies are dependent on individuals reporting exploitation.

For migrant workers, Canada’s current immigration legislation makes it very easy for employers to exploit them.

Not every employer mistreats migrant workers. However, labour exploitation is rampant and one of the most subtle forms of trafficking. It is where migrant workers are made to work under coercion such as a unpaid wages or threats of deportation. The mistreatment is not always overt or obvious meaning law enforcement and observers can fail to recognize it.

Exploitation occurs in restaurants, construction, agriculture and even private homes under the legislation of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. This program contains numerous protection gaps and policies that allow employers to employ migrants in abusive situations. These areas include:

Closed Work Permits

These temporary work permits are tied to a specific employer, barring workers from seeking alternative employment.

Leaving their initial employ for any reason, even abuse and harassment, immediately opens them to arrest and deportation.

No Union Rights

Ontario legislation does not allow agricultural workers to bargain collectively.

As a result, migrant workers cannot negotiate contracts and working conditions together.

Lack of Immigration Status

This allows migrant workers to be treated as disposable and bars them from asserting their rights.

Temporary Resident Permit Difficulties

This federal service grants temporary immigration status for survivors of human trafficking, but such applications are usually denied. One reason is that immigration officers grant or reject these applications at their own discretion.

The imbalance of power between migrant workers and employers must be addressed. 

We and other organizations and advocates call on the Government of Canada to:

Adopt Open Permits

Migrant workers should be granted open work permits that do not restrict them to a single employer. This would help limit exploitation.

Grant Permanent Residency

Migrants should receive residency status immediately upon arrival in Canada. This will prevent employers from being able to threaten them with deportation.

Value Migrant Workers

The Government of Canada should acknowledge and respect the continuing contribution that migrant workers make to this country’s communities and economy.

In addition, the Collaborative Network seeks to raise awareness of how individuals can report exploitation and seek assistance.

A helpline is available at 1-833-999-9211, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. A national helpline is forthcoming.

The Collaborative Network is committed to raising awareness of exploitation in all forms through a range of projects and informative materials. This includes our Migrant Workers Exercise.