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Working in the Dark Illustration by Alisha Lucia Davidson

Working in the Dark

Citizenship is too often a carrot dangled out of the reach of Canada’s migrant workers.

Ahmed (a pseudonym to protect him from reprisal) was visiting Toronto as a tourist when he heard about a life-changing opportunity. He’d travelled from Dubai to Canada on a visitor visa, which allows most travellers to stay in the country for six months. He had secured a job offer that would allow him to apply for a work permit, with which he’d be able to remain in the country past the visa expiration date. But the application process was long, and the expenses of supporting his wife and son were starting to pile up. This was when a friend told him that Newrest, a multinational catering company, was looking for kitchen staff to help provide in-flight meals for airlines that depart from the Montréal-Trudeau International Airport. With about seventeen years of experience as a chef—including completing a two-year cooking program and working for diplomats on the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional alliance of six Middle Eastern nations—Ahmed thought he would be a good fit for the position. A job with Newrest would mean a shot at life in Canada, and a chance to provide a better future for his son. With the family’s fate on the line, Ahmed, his wife and their baby made their way to Montreal. 

According to Ahmed, staff from Trésor, a Quebec-based placement and recruitment agency through which Newrest hires workers, assured him that they would contact him when it was time to apply for the work permit, and noted that the company would start the procedure on his behalf. Ahmed says he was also told that there would be an unpaid trial period, a common practice in the restaurant industry where a prospective cook works a shift or two without pay. He went with it, assuming he would enter his paid position shortly after, and that with it would come his permit. Unbeknownst to him, his experience was already out of sync with Canadian law. Aside from those who meet certain conditions, such as accredited diplomats and athletes, migrant workers are required to apply for and secure a permit before they start any form of work. While employers can face financial penalties for knowingly hiring workers without permits, the risk is much higher for the workers themselves: the offence can be punished by arrest and a temporary or permanent ban from the country. 

Like many migrant workers, Ahmed was relying on his employer to uphold the law and inform him of his rights and responsibilities. According to him, that didn’t happen. Ahmed says his unpaid trial went on with long days without breaks—many of which ended with hungry chefs eating leftovers from the day’s cooking—and with no sign of the permit he had been promised. “We were treated like animals,” he says. But Ahmed saw no other option. “What I know about Canada is no one will hire you unless you have the right to work,” he says. So, Ahmed kept toiling in the Newrest kitchen, waiting for the paper that would prove he had a right to do the work he was already doing. 

After several weeks, Ahmed was let go. He says Newrest attributed the reason for his dismissal to the fact that he had been working without a permit. With time running out on his visitor visa, Ahmed had no income and no clear path forward. He’d been put in an impossible position: he had used up precious time working illegally and would now have to find a way to survive without being penalized for believing his permit had been on its way.

Lured by Canada’s international reputation in healthcare and human rights, migrants come to build better lives for themselves and their families. But for many of these visitors, staying in the country requires a work permit. Without an advisor or advocate who can help them parse the world of exceptions, tiered requirements and conditions that make up Canada’s immigration framework, foreign workers often don’t have many options other than to take the word of their employer at face value. For employers, withholding information about foreign workers’ rights and legal protections could provide access to cheap, short-term labour. The promise of a work permit can incentivize foreign workers into overwork and underpayment as they labour toward a horizon of legal status. But it’s the very system of labour in Canada that enables the marginalization of migrant workers like Ahmed. As long as there are labour pools differentiated by immigration status, employers will continue to be able to take advantage of workers who don’t have access to the protections of citizenship. 

Nazim (a pseudonym to protect him from reprisal) had been working in Turkey’s textile industry when he decided to take a break and travel. Drawn by videos he had seen on social media of tourists enjoying Montreal’s vistas, Nazim travelled to the city last June on a visitor visa. He had been in the country for ten days when he saw a Facebook ad from Trésor promising work contracts with Newrest’s team in Canada. Previously a retail and wholesale trader and English teacher in Algeria, Nazim had been looking for a better job, and a position with a Canadian company seemed like just the opportunity he had been waiting for. 

At Newrest, Nazim was tasked with cleaning about eight flights a day, armed with just a little brush and a mop to clear the detritus from passengers who had touched down at the Montréal-Trudeau airport. He describes working long, hard shifts for just $15 an hour, twenty-five cents less than minimum wage, which he claims Trésor paid him under the table. But Nazim says he received no word about when he would receive his official contract or his work permit, despite allegedly being told by Trésor representatives that both would be provided for him. He assumed this was just the regular legal process: work first, documents to follow. As the months went by, Nazim began to ask Newrest and Trésor about his contract and permit, but he says he received no response. Ahmed claims he ran into similar problems: when asking Newrest for an update didn’t get him any answers, he approached Trésor with the same request but was asked to provide the information he had already submitted to Newrest. It wasn’t clear who Ahmed and Nazim’s actual employer was—Newrest or Trésor—and who they should approach about their work permits. Neither Trésor nor Newrest responded to Maisonneuve’s requests for comment in time for publication. 

In his book Essential Work, Disposable Workers, Mostafa Henaway, an organizer at Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC), describes a nesting doll of contractors and temporary employment agencies that work to shield large companies from blame. First, client companies such as the Quebec government or airlines departing from the Montréal-Trudeau airport create contracts with large firms like Newrest, which provide services like cleaning, cooking and security. These firms then subcontract the work of sourcing workers to temp agencies like Trésor, which connect a labour pool of job seekers to the available roles. Public- and private-sector employers in Quebec often use these temp agencies to hire low-wage workers. Because the client company simply contracts a firm to find staff and doesn’t directly hire the workers, it can claim to not be liable in cases of workplace safety violations, and can skimp on health and safety insurance.

Temporary foreign workers have the same rights as other employees, according to the CNESST, the government organization in charge of employment standards in Quebec. But confusion around who actually constitutes the employer makes it difficult to determine who is responsible for ensuring those rights are respected. The many layers of contracts put workers multiple points of contact away from staff who can answer questions about their rights, such as how and when to file for a work permit. The guidelines for the permit process are also complex and difficult for workers to parse through themselves, especially if their first language is neither French nor English. With the fear of deportation keeping them reliant on their employer’s guidance, workers often have few people to turn to for help. 

The system of client companies, contractors and subcontracted temp agencies can also cut into workers’ wages. While a client company’s contract may initially offer a rate above minimum wage, by the time it reaches a worker’s pocket, it might be several dollars short of what was originally set out. These practices operate in a grey zone of legality and are often hidden from the public. Though workers may be aware of these actions, reporting them often means risking government investigation into a potentially illegal work status. 

On the surface, it seems ridiculously inefficient to hire and fire a hundred workers at a time, which is the number of workers who, alongside Ahmed and Nazim, were allegedly let go by Trésor and Newrest this past fall after being promised contracts and work permits, according to the workers. Nazim says Newrest provided no health and safety training before he began work. Both he and Ahmed claim they were owed about three weeks of pay when they were told their work with the company was finished. 

One of the main programs through which employers hire migrants is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). Created to fill Canadian labour shortages, the TFWP provides migrants with employer-specific permits that allow workers to stay for a period of time to work for one company or do a specific type of labour—effectively tying migrants’ legal status to their employers. With these closed permits, even if foreign workers are informed of their rights, they are deterred from speaking up about underpayment, overwork or labour abuses because a retaliatory firing means facing the threat of deportation. Employers are then able to capitalize on workers’ vulnerability and cut costs by neglecting their legal obligations to protect workers. Kit Andres, an organizer with the national advocacy group Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), says the experience of temporary foreign workers is consistent across industries: workers endure long hours, a lack of safety equipment, poor pay and abusive conditions because their contracts and work permits are on the line. 

One concept that can be useful in understanding the abuse that migrant workers face is the idea of trafficking, which the Canadian government defines as “recruiting, moving, or holding victims to exploit them for profit.” Ahmed and Nazim’s testimonies of visiting another country and working jobs that would supposedly allow them to stay, only to labour long, hard hours toward permits that never materialized, certainly seem to fit the bill. But the government’s understanding of trafficking does not focus on recruitment agencies and multinational companies. Instead, the definition is followed with a caveat that trafficking is “usually for sexual reasons or forced labour.” The collapse of the meaning of trafficking into specifically sex trafficking distracts from other forms of exploitation that Canada’s labour and citizenship regulations can facilitate.

This focus on sex trafficking has a financial impetus, too. It is illegal for temporary residents in Canada to work for a business in which sex work occurs. For these migrants, even working as a cleaner, cook or security guard at a strip club is a deportable offence. Because of this regulation, migrant sex workers are subject to increased scrutiny from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and its partners in municipal, provincial and federal police forces. They are regularly deported as “trafficking victims,” regardless of how they view their own conditions of work. In turn, the CBSA, police forces and federal institutions receive funding earmarked for anti-trafficking, making the moral panic around sex trafficking a lucrative one to maintain.

The beneficiaries of the anti-trafficking industry have also seen their funding increase to account for the work of policing temporary foreign workers and ensuring that they remain within the conditions of their status, both at their jobs and at the border. Although migrant sex workers and temporary foreign workers do different kinds of labour in different environments, it’s clear that the ways both groups experience work are shaped by their temporary status in the country. Lawmakers, police and border enforcement remain complicit in the exploitation of all migrant workers. 

Last fall, a group of Trésor-Newrest workers came together through the IWC to start a campaign and class-action lawsuit against Trésor and Newrest. On the workers’ behalf, the IWC presented what Henaway says is a clear case of labour trafficking to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Because the workers were allegedly subject to labour abuse, they should be classified as “vulnerable workers,” reasoned the IWC. With this classification, the workers could be entitled to open work permits, which would allow them to work for almost any employer while Trésor and Newrest are investigated. The allegations of the lawsuit have not been tested in court. 

The workers allege that around the same time, IRCC—which is overseen by immigration minister Marc Miller—promised to fast-track their open permits, and process them collectively instead of one by one. Officially, workers who apply for open permits in cases of abuse are supposed to be contacted by an IRCC officer within five business days. Anecdotally, Andres says that the granting of permits is subject to each officer’s discretion: they have seen cases where workers at one workplace experienced the same conditions of abuse and submitted the same proof, but only a select few were approved for open permits. 

The Trésor-Newrest workers say that in early November, IRCC suddenly reneged on its offer to fast-track their open permits, stating it would treat each worker’s case individually and launch a lengthy investigation instead. It isn’t clear to either Henaway or the workers why exactly IRCC retracted its offer. (In response to a request for comment, the department stated that it could not comment on individual cases due to privacy legislation.) But the Trésor-Newrest workers quickly gathered to respond. On a night a few days after the offer was allegedly retracted, the workers and their families packed the IWC in Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood. Children ran between arms and legs as their parents prepared speeches and stretched out paper and fabric to make signs. They were joined by a group of workers and organizers with the No More 24 campaign, an initiative to improve working conditions and eliminate harmful twenty-four-hour shifts for home care providers in New York, the majority of whom are immigrant women. The No More 24 group had come to the IWC to connect with workers facing similar forms of exploitation. That evening, conversations between the No More 24 visitors and the Trésor-Newrest workers were carried out through Google Translate. English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Mandarin mingled in the air while other workers communicated through action instead of language, passing markers, paint and paper across the small and densely packed room.

The next morning, around a hundred Trésor-Newrest workers rallied outside of Miller’s constituency office, calling on IRCC to make good on its alleged promise of fast-tracking open permits. Between supportive honks from motorists leaning on their horns as they drove by, protestors spoke about their working conditions with Newrest and their interactions with Trésor. Across the street from the main protest, two workers held up a long piece of fabric with the painted question, in French, “a crisis impacts the workers trafficked by Newrest-Trésor, where is Mr. Marc Miller’s promise?”

After the rally, the demonstrators began to march toward Square Chaboillez, a small park across from one of IRCC’s Montreal offices. Amid the chanting, beeping and whistling, I spoke with Henaway about the workers’ case. He believed the IWC would be able to hold a meeting between Miller’s office and Trésor and Newrest representatives soon. One case of labour trafficking can be hard to prove, but with such a large group that can testify to having been promised and then denied permits, Henaway was confident about the workers’ next steps: “How can a hundred workers be wrong?”

As corporate wealth in Canada increases, the inequality gap between corporations and all workers, even those of us with the benefits of citizenship, widens. In her book Border & Rule, activist Harsha Walia connects the continued exploitation of workers to rising corporate wealth. Like migrant workers, Canadian citizens and permanent residents are subject to gig and contract work that lacks benefits and offers stagnated wages that fail to keep pace with the cost of living. For centuries, this decrease in job security and stability has been explained through the conservative myth of stolen jobs, a xenophobic sentiment that suggests migrants arrive in Canada and take up the good work, leaving citizens struggling to make ends meet. In reality, working conditions across the board are disrupted by the existence of a migrant labour force that is traditionally excluded from unions, lacking in training and subject to exploitation due to the constant threat of deportation. Migrant workers also face the same rising costs, limited access to healthcare and landlords’ audacious disregard for the law as everyone else, but without the protections that are tied to citizenship. Filing a housing complaint, for example, risks drawing unwanted government attention that could reveal a potential lack of status. 

The experiences of migrant workers like Ahmed and Nazim exemplify the falsity of the Canadian myth of an immigration and border control system that’s kinder and gentler than those of the United States or European countries. As long as employers can count on replacing Canadian workers with more easily exploitable migrants, their incentive to provide better pay, training and benefits for all is limited. This is why the Migrants Rights Network, an alliance of migrant groups across Canada that includes MWAC and the IWC, argues that “status for all” is a horizon for labour justice in Canada. The goal is to grant permanent residency and family unification to everyone, regardless of their work permit, length of contract or field of work. With status, migrant workers would be able to join Canadian organizers in fighting for better access to housing, healthcare and transit instead of being siloed off from the rest of the Canadian working class. They would be empowered to enforce their rights to fair compensation, breaks and safe working conditions, improving the landscape for all workers in Canada, whether or not they have citizenship. 

Ultimately, it is only through the inclusion of temporary foreign workers, sex workers, gig and contract workers and other hyper-exploited labour forces that a movement for better wages and conditions for all can truly be staged. Workers like Ahmed and Nazim deserve the fast-tracked open work permits that the Trésor-Newrest workers allege IRCC promised; but more than that, they deserve access to work, housing and healthcare free from exploitation, fear and administrative barriers—all workers do. ⁂

M Gnanasihamany is a writer, artist and curator based in Montreal. Their work has appeared in publications including BlackFlash, Leste, Metatron Press, Peripheral Review and Peach Mag. In all of their work, they are guided by a dedication to the abolition of police and prisons, trans liberation, the emancipation of all workers and a free Palestine in our lifetime.