They are cooks, cleaners, wait staff. They are welders, electricians, and construction workers. They are nurses, physicians, and live-in caregivers. They are manual labourers in greenhouses and throughout the agricultural sector. Residents of Saskatchewan have direct and indirect encounters with them on a daily basis, whether it is each time they order a double-double, access health care, or purchase some locally grown produce.
They are migrant workers: thousands of foreign workers who are in this province on temporary work permits. They are legally allowed to work here, but there are no guarantees that they will be allowed to stay.
The number of Temporary Foreign Workers in Saskatchewan has increased by 310 percent since 2005, yet there is little systematic understanding of their actual experience of work and residency in Saskatchewan. In 2014, there was an estimated 11,000 TFWs in the province (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2014). If we include permanent residents and workers employed in the province through company transfers or the International Labour Mobility program, the number of newcomers and foreign workers is at least double.
Why are workers from all corners of the globe coming here to Saskatchewan to work jobs that are often low-wage and lack security?
These workers are just part of an estimated 232 million migrants worldwide crossing international borders in order to find work pushed by the rapid pace of economic globalization that has resulted in high unemployment and increasing poverty in their home countries (International Labour Organization, 2016). These conditions have resulted in a demand for foreign workers in low and high-skilled occupations here in developed economies, like Saskatchewan. The end result as Choudry and Smith (2016) describe it: “with Economic restructuring, labour market deregulation and the erosion of union power, increasing numbers of workers – and especially immigrant and temporary migrant workers – have suffered disproportionality from low-wage employment and welfare state retrenchment.”
Our two, linked research teams are attempting to better understand this population’s health needs, employment conditions, and housing situations. We are studying the issues migrant workers encounter on the job, whether it is about workplace safety or the complex relationship they have with unions. It is critical that researchers, service providers, policy makers and, most importantly, the general public learn more about migrant workers who are making positive contributions to our communities and our workplaces.
Throughout North America, migrant workers are recognized as especially vulnerable to factors affecting health such as poor housing conditions, workplace safety, and access to health services (Preibisch & Hennebry, 2011; Preibisch & Otero, 2014) – all which can be considered modifiable determinants of health, and all of which are affected by various forms of legislation and regulation. It’s also been well-documented that the legal status of migrant workers makes them particularly vulnerable to workplace exploitation and abuse (Faraday 2014; Faraday 2012; Auditor General of Canada 2009). We are comparing the migrant worker realities in Saskatchewan to experiences in other provinces.
This research also seeks to understand the relationship between migrant workers and their respective unions. Although a substantial number of TFWs are employed in industries, like food services and accommodations, with low union density rates, many work in occupations like healthcare and construction where labour organizations have a significant presence (Stevens 2014a). This component of the project also investigates the interaction between migrant workers and employment standards, and how they navigate the existing complaints-based system governing hours of work, minimum wages, and other basic workplace rights.
In order to get a clearer picture of migrant worker life and health-affecting circumstances in Saskatchewan, the first phase of our study reached out to a variety of community partners who work directly with migrant workers. Our Community Advisory Panel (CAP) draws on a wealth of experience and knowledge amongst professionals and community leaders who interact with migrant workers and migrant worker issues. The purpose of the CAP is to help identify stakeholders we could interview and recruit participants for our study. In total 15 key informants were identified and interviewed in 2016. Collectively our interviewees represent a broad spectrum consisting of faith groups, settlement agencies, employers, government regulators, and workplace safety organizations.
Our preliminary findings shed light on the various ways provincial legislation and regulations affect the well-being of migrant workers. Through the interviews we identified gaps in the established systems (provincial and federal) that are designed to protect the health of these foreign workers. Drawing on and reflecting on our research, questions surface about the design and effectiveness of the provincial mechanisms, particularly related to enforcement provisions, that are supposed to protect migrant workers in Saskatchewan in the areas of employment standards, housing, occupational safety, and accessing health care services.
Accessing Health Care
Our interviews reveal that even if migrant workers are entitled to health care, they have difficulty accessing healthcare services due to language barriers or because they might lack the knowledge of how to navigate the provincial health care system. What is also apparent is that migrant workers are hesitant to report illness and or seek medical attention because they are fearful doing so may compromise their employment and result, ultimately, in deportation. Unfortunately, this fear is not unfounded. The service providers and migrant worker advocates we spoke to provided accounts of this actually occurring:
I know one guy who had his appendix removed, after he was released from the hospital shortly he was sent back home because his recuperation would take longer. So the employer don’t want to risk it because the reality is it’s money that they are investing and they need to get some return so they don’t want to have workers that aren’t healthy or they don’t work. (migrant worker advocate)
These health care realities have even changed the human resource practices in companies that came to rely on the Temporary Foreign Work Program.
We actually partnered with a doctor’s office. And in the doctor’s office there’s like a doctor, a chiropractor, a massage therapist – you know there’s whole bunch of different practices all practicing in one practice. And so for a lot of our people they don’t have a doctor, right? Like they don’t have somebody that they’ve seen ever since they were born. Like a lot of them, when you’re new to the country, you haven’t had that exposure to somebody that may not have just been a walk-in clinic. You know like if you weren’t feeling good. So we never force anybody to go to our doctor, it is always up to them. And the doctors that we work with are very familiar with our processes and that – we want to accommodate. (human resource manager)
Housing surfaced as an issue among migrant workers according to settlement workers and migrant worker advocates in the community. This includes migrant workers who are free to secure their own housing as well as those who live in accommodation provided by their employers. Access to affordable and safe housing in close proximity to services and sources of employment is limited, especially in Saskatchewan’s two main urban centres. Many interview participants mentioned that affordable housing was often restricted to what they perceive as unsafe neighbourhoods or in poorly maintained properties. It is important to recognize that this is a problem facing many low-income residents in Saskatchewan, and sheds light on the limitations of existing municipal and provincial housing strategies.
Many critical questions surface when examining the effectiveness of the regulatory bodies that are tasked with conducting housing inspections for employers who hire and house migrant workers. Interview participants frequently summoned examples of over-crowding, housing supplied with insufficient number of appliances, and infrastructure that is in poor to inoperable condition. Employers often approached Regional Health Authorities for housing inspection documentation, which they can later submit as part of their application to hire foreign temporary workers:
We would report only on the conditions that we would see the time and the day of the inspection. Which means if they ask for the inspection in the middle of December, and everything is frozen and boarded up because they aren’t going to have [the workers] until summer, all we would say is, this is the time we were here and this is what we saw.
Often time the inspection is before the migrant worker actually shows up because it is part of the approval process to actually get them on site. So often times they are not even there when I am inspecting. (housing inspector)
This reflection is problematic because it does not assure the housing adequately meet the needs of the migrant workers, and sheds light on the limitations of the inspection regime as applied to housing for TFWs. It is also not an accurate assessment of the actual living conditions of the migrant workers once they actually arrive, and fails to prevent the examples of over-crowding summoned during interviews.
Occupational health encompasses the physical and psychological well-being of workers. Saskatchewan has one of the highest work-related injury rates and the highest workplace injury-related fatality rate among Canadian provinces (AWCBC, 2016). Common occupational health issues cited by our interviewees include migrant workers being over-worked, not being trained properly in workplace safety, lack of proper safety equipment, and/or unsafe working conditions. As one interviewee noted:
Vulnerable workers will often overlook safety, just to keep their job. They’ll often overlook any safety concerns, and that’s the same with migrant workers, or with new Canadians is [that] safety isn’t important. They’ll do whatever they have to do or are told to do and that’ll be it. (union representative)
The consensus among interviewees was that there are significant obstacles to migrant workers reporting workplace injuries, and materials related to OHS rights and responsibilities and OHS training need to be translated into different languages. A key informant had this to say:
Their own situation isn’t stable yet in Canada. They worry that if they complain, there’ll be retribution. And in some cases they come from a country where there was retribution if they were injured at work. Not in all cases but in some cases. So that is the number one thing; the tendency is to not report at all; they’re too scared to report. (member of provincial safety association)
These gaps result in unreported injuries, and migrant workers not getting the support they are entitled to from the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board. Furthermore, because of injury under reporting, safety associations, the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety, and other injury prevention partners, may not have an accurate picture of the types and frequency of injuries experienced by migrant workers.
Employment standards and labour relations legislation in Saskatchewan has always been a politically charged issue. In the last decade, major legislative overhauls resulted in the introduction of the Saskatchewan Employment Act, which, by some accounts, has tilted the balance of power in the favour of employers and businesses in the province (Stevens 2014b). However, some improvements to the basic floor of employment rights have been established, not least of which is legislation focused on protecting migrant and immigrant worker rights. Some of these legislative changes surfaced in response to hundreds of reported cases of abuse and exploitation.
Interviewees discussed at length the ways in which the precariousness of status makes migrant workers more vulnerable than their Canadian counterparts. The combination of possible workplace exploitation, mistreatment and abuse combined with a lack of understanding about rights in general is identified as a major issue:
The stories I’ve heard from my clients they’re – they were treated very, very badly. They were called even slaves. You came to Canada because I give you these option. I wanted you to come to – and you have to do whatever I tell you otherwise I just kick you as from this place. (settlement worker)
Proclaimed in 2013, Saskatchewan’s Foreign Worker Immigration Rights and Services Act (FWRISA) is designed to police recruiters, immigration consultants and employers, and offer migrant workers legal avenues through which to address instances of harassment and exploitation in the workplace. The province describes this legislation as the most comprehensive of its kind in Canada. In fact, our province’s legislated protections for migrant workers have been given a B+ by the Canadian Council for Refugees in that organization’s 2015 national Report Card (CCR 2015). However, there is room for improvement. Our findings suggest that the legislation does not go far enough in auditing employers, or providing migrant workers with adequate assurances that they will not lose employment or be deported should they choose to file a complaint.
Although FWRISA can conduct investigations regarding abuse or mistreatment of workers, there are only three Integrity Officers plus an Executive Director who are responsible for the entire province of Saskatchewan. This shortfall is reflected in the federal management and enforcement of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. With over a thousand organizations accessing the TFWP, the sheer number of employers who hire migrant workers makes it difficult if not impossible for even a quarter of employers in Saskatchewan to be audited. The question raised here is whether this creates a scenario whereby abuses may routinely occur, go unreported or are underreported. Since FWRISA also operates as a complaint-based system, it means migrant workers themselves who have a workplace issue, or their allies in the community, must contact the FWRISA hotline. Problems with this complaint-based system have long been documented in Saskatchewan and across Canada (Faraday 2014; Leo 2014). As our evidence shows, it is apparent that the fear of dismissal or deportation is a very real one for many of these workers, and therefore, there is great reluctance to report to authorities and instead continue to tolerate a situation with no reprieve or resolution.
There have also been unintended consequences stemming from FWRISA, which have hindered the capacity of public servants to offer assistants to migrant workers. This also ties into the lack of English language competencies amongst some of these newcomers and the lack of multi-lingual information about services.
One of the big limitations is …you know, there’s so many forms. And everybody says “can you help me do this form? Can you help me do this form?” and actually with the provincial legislation, we cannot help them do the form. We can give them the same information that there would be on the website about the form, and about the categories but we can’t say “if I was you I would put this here. Or I would put it like this”. We cannot interpret their information for them. According to the new provincial legislation that came in February of 2014, where you cannot act as if you are an Immigration Consultant. (settlement worker)
Future Directions for Research and Policy
While this paper represents a short summary of our preliminary research findings, and while there are still many unknowns about the experiences of migrant workers in Saskatchewan, our data raises the questions about the self-regulatory and complaints-driven regulatory model of migrant worker rights. The evidence suggests there is a need for greater resources for migrant workers than what already exists, and that there are not sufficient supports exclusively tailored to the unique needs of migrant workers. It also suggests the protective mechanisms in place ought to be strengthened. Going forward, our research team has highlighted the following issues:
- In recognizing that many migrant workers originate in non-English speaking countries, all three levels of government need to consider the translation of documents related to accessing public service, employment rights, and occupational health and safety into languages commonly spoken by these newcomers (e.g., Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog, Arabic).
- Consideration needs to be given to making publicly accessible the number of cases investigated by the Ministry of the Economy’s Program Integrity Unit, which oversees the FWRISA, as well as the outcome of these investigations and parties involved. Immigration recruiters and agencies that have been banned from practicing in Saskatchewan need to be included on a government-maintained list.
- With legislation already in place for housing, employments standards and occupational health/safety, but gaps in enforcement revealed in this research, Saskatchewan needs implementation of a more robust inspection mandate in these areas. Relatedly, this requires an examination of the existing self-regulation and complaints-based models in these respective areas. Proactive approaches (e.g., random audits and inspections) may help identify those employers that regularly flaunt OHS and employment law. Here, cooperation will be required between Ministries and with municipal levels of government.
- Recognizing that issues surrounding access to safe affordable housing are similarly faced by thousands of migrant and non-migrants, local municipalities need to be empowered with a provincial affordable housing strategy. The principal focus should be on the two major urban centres, Saskatoon and Regina, where about half of all TFWs are located. Challenges faced by migrant workers in rural areas and smaller municipalities also need to be considered.
By “Health Wanted: Social Determinants of Health Among Migrant Workers, and “Saskatchewan in the Global Division of Migrant Labor” research teams at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina.
Farha Akhtar, Dr. Michael Schwandt, Dr. Lori Hanson, Dr. Sean Tucker, Dr. Andrew Stevens
AWCBC (Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada). (2016) http://awcbc.org/?page_id=14
Auditor General of Canada. 2009. Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons. Chapter 2: Selecting foreign workers under the Immigration Program. Fall.
CCR. 2015. Report card: Migrant workers in Saskatchewan. http://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/sk_report_card.pdf
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Stevens, Andrew. 2014b. Is the Saskatchewan Employment Act ready of modern realities? Rankandfile.ca, May 13. http://rankandfile.ca/2014/05/13/is-the-saskatchewan-employment-act-ready-for-modern-realities/