The murky world of the agencies that recruit temporary foreign workers
Published on: September 14, 2016 | Last Updated: September 14, 2016 10:56 AM MDT
This is part 3 of Alia Dharssi’s series, Workers Without Borders. To see the series in its entirety, click here.
TORONTO — After having a baby, Amy wanted to buy a home for her family in northeast China so much that she moved to Canada to work as a temporary foreign worker.
She expected to earn almost $9,000, enough to buy an apartment in her home city. It would be far more than she could have earned at her job at an engine factory in China.
So, Amy paid $2,000 to the agency that had arranged the job and boarded a train to Beijing with others who had been hired in April 2015.
Then she got on a plane to Canada, knowing she wouldn’t see her baby for months.
“I felt uncomfortable in my heart,” Amy, a petite woman, said through a translator.
Today, more than a year after landing in Canada, Amy, whose name has been changed for her protection, has not returned home, nor does she know when she will next hold her child, now a toddler, in her arms.
Instead, she is in Toronto where the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic is helping her file an application to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds.
She is scared to return home after raising the alarm about the Chinese recruitment company that brought her to Canada.
Amy’s complex story provides a glimpse into the murky dealings that characterize the way many low-paid temporary foreign workers have come to Canada since 2002, when a new stream was created for low-skilled workers.
Chances are the migrant workers building condos in Vancouver, cleaning hotel rooms in Alberta or picking tomatoes in Ontario greenhouses paid fees to come to Canada and work in their low-paying jobs.
In some cases, workers are further abused by recruiters who control their money, housing and movements.
Those who escape, like Amy, may wind up in Canada’s underground economy.
During an interview in Toronto, Amy alleged the company that brought her, along with a few dozen other Chinese workers, to work in the food industry took control of their earnings by confiscating their passports and bank cards.
None of the workers spoke English, so a representative of the company that brought them acted as an intermediary between the workers and the management on the factory floor and in employer-provided housing.
“The eight months I spent there was like being in the jail,” Amy said. “I did not have freedom to go outside.”
She worked 12-hour shifts six days per week and, on their day off, she and the other Chinese workers went to a field to dig up plants to supplement their diet of preserved vegetables from China, according to an affidavit Amy prepared for her application to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds.
They were given meat once a month.
A Canadian co-worker who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Chinese workers “were always crying, not eating.”
“We didn’t really know why because we didn’t understand them, but we knew something was wrong.”
At the six-month mark, Amy said she’d been paid only $400 and grew anxious, even though the recruiter promised to pay her and the other workers once they returned to China.
So, she started telling her co-workers about the situation using a Chinese-English translation app. One of them let her borrow a phone so she could call the Chinese Embassy.
By the end of last year, the owners of the factory had got wind of what was happening and hired a translator to speak to the workers directly. The recruiter was forced to return the workers’ passports, which they used to regain control of their bank accounts before returning home.
Amy fled to Montreal and then Toronto in search of help.
In her affidavit, Amy said some of her co-workers disappeared after they returned to China. Now, she worries the recruitment agency will come after her.
“I hope I can stay in Canada so that my safety can be protected,” she said in her affidavit.
The hot market for Canadian jobs
Not all recruiters are involved in questionable dealings.
It is legal for employment agencies and immigration consultants to charge employers to find foreign workers.
But enough operate outside of the law that it’s commonplace for low-skilled migrant workers to pay high fees to come to Canada, even though they are illegal in most provinces.
Canadian employers have also been involved in such dealings, skirting Temporary Foreign Worker Program rules that require them to pay for the worker’s airfare and other costs.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure I know the definition of the scope of the problem,” said federal Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk. “I’ve heard of amounts of up to $10,000 for a position, for a low-wage job in Canada.”
Eighteen of 33 migrant workers from developing countries who were interviewed about recruitment for this investigation paid between $2,000 and $10,000 for their jobs in Canada to work in seafood processing, greenhouses, on chicken farms, as nannies and in other low-paying jobs.
Alma Damasco, a 30-year-old from the Philippines, wanted to come to Canada so badly that she stayed up all night preparing her papers after long shifts building circuit boards in Taiwan.
Damasco said she paid an agency in Taiwan more than $4,000 to secure a job in New Brunswick processing lobster.
A 30-year-old Bangladeshi man living in Calgary said he paid a Canadian recruiter $10,000, his savings from working as a waiter in Dubai, to secure at job at an Alberta gas station in 2013.
“I went to International City in Dubai and paid him cash,” he said.
He dreamed of having a family in Canada, but his work permit was cancelled in 2015.
A 37-year-old worker named Freddie, who grows and picks cucumbers at a greenhouse in Ontario, said he took out a loan of more than $4,500, with a 12 per cent interest rate, to make it to Canada.
In Honduras, Freddie earned $7 to $17 per day in farming and construction. It was just enough for food, he said.
“I wanted to save and have my own house,” he said. “I wanted to pay for the studies of my kids.”
Fees are so rampant that Canadian recruitment agencies have to tread carefully. Benjamin Guth, vice-president of Diamond Immigration, a company that recruited workers for tourism, hotel and restaurant jobs until 2014, said he spent time overseas to ensure the workers the company brought to Canada did not pay fees.
“There were a lot of recruiters, both large-scale and small recruiters, that would pop up over night and do a lot of damage to the industry as a whole,” he said.
These recruitment problems are tied to global trends.
There are more than 150 million migrant workers worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization. Most are from developing countries, but take poorly paid jobs in rich ones.
Their movements are usually organized by private recruiters who act as intermediaries between them and prospective employers.
Many workers simply see the fees as the price of admission to Canada.
But this global industry is rampant with exploitation by unscrupulous agents who charge fees as high as US$15,000 for placing migrants in jobs that are often poorly paid, dramatically different from what was promised or don’t exist, said a 2015 United Nations report.
For jobs in Canada, workers typically pay fees worth between six months to two years of their earnings in their home countries, according to estimates by Toronto lawyer Fay Faraday, who interviewed more than 200 temporary foreign workers in Canada for a 2014 report on recruitment.
Migrant workers often take loans with steep interest rates, putting their houses up for collateral, or use their family’s savings to scrape together money to come to Canada.
In return, underhanded recruiters promise unrealistic salaries, provide false information about opportunities to get permanent residency and lie about working conditions, among other ploys, migrant advocates say.
For example, in December 2014, police in southwestern Ontario charged three Indonesian men with extorting temporary foreign workers.
The men allegedly charged several Indonesian workers unexpected accommodation and transportation fees after they came to Canada and had already paid $6,500 to $9,000 to secure jobs in greenhouses.
In May, Jennilyn Morris, an Edmonton woman who came to Canada as a caregiver in 1998, was sent to jail for exploiting temporary foreign workers. Between 2006 and 2010, she hired dozens of foreign workers from the Philippines, charged some of them fees for work permits, forced them to work overtime in her restaurants and janitorial business, and paid less than minimum wage.
In Toronto, in December 2015, another recruiter, who had a gambling problem, was sentenced to six years in prison, after bilking more than 900 Filipino migrant workers of $2.4 million for jobs that did not exist and issuing fraudulent approvals for these jobs from the government of Canada between 2012 and 2014.
“It’s such a scandal that some recruiters double as loan sharks, so they’re the ones who give you or your family the loan and you’re paying them off,” said Syed Hussan, an organizer for Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change, a migrant worker advocacy group in Toronto.
The threshold for becoming a recruiter is “really low,” Faraday added. “All you need is a cellphone, a Rolodex and a bit of charm.”
Canada’s growing recruitment problem
The government doesn’t know how big this problem is, but investigating fraud related to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is a priority for the Canada Border Services Agency.
It receives tips about TFWP fraud weekly, said to Dan Davidson, a regional programs manager with CBSA in the Prairies.
“Most of that priority relates more to people who are facilitating that fraud, so that could be consultants or employers,” he said. “But also we’ll end up dealing with temporary foreign workers themselves if they are here working outside of their permit.”
The TFWP has also been linked to human trafficking by Canada’s national action plan on the issue, which was developed by various groups, including Economic and Social Development Canada, which is partly responsible for the TFWP.
“All too often you have these very, very unscrupulous business owners that will just take advantage of (temporary foreign workers) that will strip them of their personal rights and freedom,” said Yves Brochu, a corporal at the RCMP’s human trafficking national co-ordination centre in Ottawa.
But the TFWP is just one among a range of strategies traffickers use, he added.
“Some victims come under student visas. Some people come here under just a visitor visa. Some people jump the border.”
Even so, critics say the structure of the program is to blame for creating a widespread recruitment problem in Canada.
Until the program peaked in 2014, when the Conservative government instituted further restrictions, there was steady growth of third-party for-profit recruiters, Faraday said.
“The difficulty is that those recruiters are not subject to oversight and licensing and regulation in a way that ensures that they are not exploiting workers.”
A tricky world for employers to navigate
For employers, the world of recruitment is tricky to navigate. Even if everything seems above board, their workers may still have paid fees.
“In some cases, you pay someone in the Philippines and then you bring other cash in a brown paper bag,” said Cathy Kolar, a migrant worker advocate in Leamington, Ont. “There’s agents and sub agents.”
For this reason, Jim Suydam, general manager for All Seasons Mushrooms Inc. in Airdrie, Alta., avoids recruiters altogether. Instead, he asks his migrant workers to recommend friends and family.
“(Agencies) can do the paperwork fine for me, but I’m going to steer clear of them from a recruiting perspective,” said Suydam.
He recalls receiving “seedy” unsolicited phone calls from four to five people offering to get him workers when he became general manager one year ago.
In the early 2000s, when Maple Leaf Foods first used the TFWP to fill meat processing vacancies, it found some workers from China had paid recruitment fees.
“We were concerned because we were unaware,” said Rory McAlpine, senior vice-president of government and industry relations.
Now, the company screens third parties involved in hiring migrant workers and runs the bulk of its own recruitment process, which prevents unsavoury dealings.
Nannies paying for fake jobs
After charging fees, some recruiters fire workers within hours or days of their landing in Canada, a problem called “released on arrival.” It is common among caregivers, according to researchers with Gabriela Ontario, a group that conducted a nationwide survey of caregivers for Ryerson University.
Lawyers, churches and grassroots organizations say they meet such migrant nannies regularly.
Every few months, women who came to Canada for fake jobs as caregivers turn up desperate for help at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Toronto.
“We tell them to make sure they always have a Xerox of their documents in case their passport is taken or stolen,” said Jeanette Rosales, the church’s co-ordinator of the social ministry.
Nine of the 40 caregivers the West Coast Domestic Workers’ Association in Vancouver assisted with permanent residency applications in January were released on arrival, said executive director Natalie Drolet. It’s a problem the group encounters every month.
In some cases, the recruiter may house the nannies and hire them out for day jobs as babysitters or cleaners.
Court documents from a 2012 case in Toronto highlight such an operation. A caregiver reported the recruiter told her the job didn’t exist when she landed in Canada, took her to a house where she lived with 20 other Filipina women and hired her out to work in factories and as a cleaner.
Shady recruiters target women like Elma, a single mother in her mid-30s who lives in Toronto. Her name has been changed at her request because she is worried her story will jeopardize her permanent residency application.
After being offered a job as a live-in caregiver in Canada in 2012, Elma was thrilled even though she had to pay a fee of about $4,500.
“I cried,” recalled Elma. “Because I never expected, never dreamed — it never came into my mind that I would be able to come here to Canada.”
She cried again within days of landing in Ottawa.
She was fired after working overtime for seven days in a row upon arrival in Canada. She was paid $100 at the end of the week, she said.
Under the rules of the Live-in Caregiver Program, Elma could stay in the country and look for another job. But it took her a year to find a new family to sponsor her and an additional six months for her papers to come through.
While waiting, Elma worked illegally in Montreal, Saskatoon and Toronto, so she could remit money to her three children in the Philippines.
Twice, she stayed with families and cared for their children at rates below minimum wage because they promised they would sponsor her, she said. They never did.
Robin Seligman, an immigration lawyer who has dealt with cases like Elma’s, says the government’s policy doesn’t make sense and puts caregivers in a precarious situation.
“What live-in caregiver is going to sit around for six to eight months not working and what employer is going to wait?” she said.
This caregivers’ conundrum is one of several regulations and policies related to the TFWP that concerned groups say pushes temporary foreign workers to work under the table or makes them hesitant to stand up to abuse.
According to Faraday, the majority of recruitment problems remain hidden because migrant workers are too scared of the consequences of speaking up — something police say they encounter in their investigations.
“They have been taught by traffickers, most of the time, that if they say anything to authorities or to anyone else outside of their ring, they’re probably going to be arrested and they will no longer be able to go back to their countries and see their families,” said Victor De Moura, an investigator with the RCMP in Montreal.
No National Action Plan
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program requires employers to pay for recruitment costs and workers’ airfares, but regulation of recruitment fees and recruiters fall into the jurisdiction of provincial governments.
The protection workers receive varies across Canada.
Part of the problem is a lack of monitoring. Only eight on-site inspections were initiated out of a total of 5,907 employers reviewed by Economic and Social Development Canada from 2013 to 2015.
But it is the responsibility of the provinces to ensure their labour code is followed, said Mihychuk.
“They are looking for the federal government to have a role because it is a program we administer, but, on the labour front, they have inspectors,” she explained.
“So we are working with jurisdictions to try and work out some of these issues, but clearly we have to have more on-the-ground inspection.”
In Manitoba, shady recruiters caught the attention of officials after an influx of migrant workers in 2008, said Jay Short, manager for special investigations for the provincial government. Suddenly, they started hearing alarming stories of workers who had paid thousands for jobs.
Even though many of the payments take place abroad, Manitoba has cracked down so effectively on recruiters that its policies have been recognized internationally. In addition to making recruitment fees illegal, the province checks up on employers and developed a licensing system for recruiters that requires them to pay a $10,000 bond that can be used to reimburse workers for any recruitment fees they might pay.
Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have followed Manitoba’s lead with similar models. Other provinces, with the exception of Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island, have also passed laws against recruitment fees.
In Ontario, charging recruitment fees to all migrant workers became illegal in November 2015, though it has been against the rules to charge caregivers since 2010.
Even so, a survey of 132 caregivers by the Caregivers’ Action Centre and Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto found that two-thirds had paid fees averaging $3,275 after Ontario prohibited them.
The law doesn’t work because it relies on caregivers to come forward within three and a half years, explained Faraday. The time frame is too short for caregivers who don’t feel safe complaining until they are permanent residents.
Such gaps in regulating recruiters across Canada persist even after critical government reports, including ones from the auditor general and the parliamentary standing committee on citizenship and immigration in 2009.
About one year after Amy first arrived in Canada, one of her co-workers said that the same Chinese recruitment agency returned to Canada to supply workers to another company.
Amy grows restless when she thinks about it.
“I want the recruitment agency to be eliminated completely,” she said.