Understanding the Unique Vulnerabilities to Human Trafficking for Temporary Foreign Workers

March 1, 2024

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) is a government initiative that allows Canadian employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

In recent years there has been a notable rise in workers arriving to Canada on a temporary basis to address specific workforce needs. Per Statistics Canada, the count of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in Canada stood at 111,000 in the year 2000. Fast forward to 2021, and this figure surged dramatically to 777,000.  

The concept of the TFWP is not new. Programs allowing employers to hire temporary foreign workers have been around in Canada since the 1960s, when the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) began.  

Today, the TFWP provides permits for workers in a wide range of industries and positions, including high and low-wage positions, agricultural positions, and caregiver positions. Although the Program has seen numerous reforms since its inception, in practice these changes have done little to protect migrant workers.  

It's important to discuss the exploitation of temporary foreign workers. By doing this, we can shine a light on the inequality’s workers face and understand how their unique vulnerabilities put them at a higher risk of human trafficking.

The Exploitative Opportunities of Closed TFW Permits

TFWs often come to Canada on “closed” work permits that are issued after a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) finds there is a need for a foreign worker to fill the job. This means that the worker can only work for the employer named on their work permit. Even though they can technically quit their job, they cannot work for another employer without getting a new work permit.

This leaves TFWs extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Many feel trapped in their situation and will endure poor working and living conditions as opposed to quitting their job and risking deportation.

An open work permit lets you work for any employer; however, these are only issued in certain circumstances.

The Government of Canada maintains that workers can quit their job and remain in Canada legally until the expiration of their visa. However, this is not a realistic option for many workers. The process of finding a job and getting a new work permit is often lengthy and difficult. Additionally, TFWs are not eligible for many social services that unemployed Canadians citizens have access to, despite paying into programs such as the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Employment Insurance (EI).

Vulnerability to Exploitation

In addition to the employer-specific work permits mentioned above, there are other conditions that make TFW’s more vulnerable to exploitation. These include:  

Labour Trafficking and a Vulnerable Workforce

Trafficking is one of the most extreme forms of exploitation TFWs face in Canada.

Labour trafficking can happen in legal, registered businesses across Canada. Industries more frequently subject to labour trafficking include agriculture, domestic work, construction, hospitality, manufacturing, restaurants, health and beauty salons, and healthcare.  

Anyone can become a victim of labour trafficking. However, there are factors that put individuals at a higher risk of being trafficked. These factors include:  

Traffickers recognize and take advantage of these vulnerabilities to force individuals to carry out work for little to no pay, or in unsafe conditions.

In Canada, labour trafficking predominantly affects migrant workers, often those in the low-wage positions within the TFWP. According to Statistics Canada, over the period of 2010 to 2019, the employment of TFWs became increasingly concentrated to low-wage positions in sectors such as hospitality, food service, and retail.  

The full scale of human rights violations against temporary foreign workers in Canada is unknown, as many workers are reluctant to disclose the abuse they have been subjected to. Workers may be afraid to come forward due to threats from their employer, a distrust of law enforcement, a fear of deportation, or a lack of understanding of their rights as a worker in Canada.

Advocacy and Support for Migrant Workers

Migrant workers arriving in Canada as part of the TFWP have played an integral role in supporting and shaping the Canadian economy’ however, they lack many of the same basic rights and benefits that Canadian workers have access to.  

The journey towards a better future for TFWs in Canada involves shedding a light on the exploitation many face, and actively participating in advocating for change.

This is happening right in front of us, in the businesses we frequent, in our communities. Be an advocate for change: engage in conversations with your family, friends, and community members about what is happening in our labour force and supply chains. Share on your social media channels. Attend webinars and educational sessions to learn more about trafficking.  

Stand up, speak out, and demand change to protect the rights of temporary foreign workers. No one should be subject to exploitation in pursuit of a better life.

For more information on how you can get involved in the movement to end human trafficking visit www.actalberta.org or contact us.