Protecting temporary foreign workers on P.E.I. is a simple matter of human rights, the Canadian Union of Public Employees told a legislative committee earlier this week.
Aditya Rao, the human rights representative with CUPE Maritimes, was testifying before a committee considering a proposed Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act. Rao said the province needs to put workers' rights ahead of business interests.
"[Do] we want to allow businesses and employers essentially to be able to rely on an exploitable workforce, rather than on a workforce whose human rights are guaranteed, who have protections and who have freedoms?" Rao said on CBC Radio's Island Morning Thursday.
The province has considerable power in the management of the temporary foreign worker program, said Rao. While the federal government is responsible for immigration, it is the provinces that regulate working conditions.
Conditions are better for temporary foreign workers on P.E.I. than in other parts of the country, Rao said, but there is room for improvement. He cited a report by the Cooper Institute and Dalhousie and St. Thomas universities from this year outlining problems in housing and of employers making deportation threats.
'A lot of pitfalls'
The solution lies in moving away from a complaint-based system, Rao said, and toward a proactive approach that ensures rules are being followed.
"There is a lot of pitfalls with respect to a complaints-based system when we know that migrant workers live under extreme precarity," said Rao.
In many cases with migrant workers immigration status is tied to their employment status, so if they lose their job, they lose their right to be in Canada. An employer can sometimes not even go to the extent of firing a worker. They can just choose not to recall them the next season.
Migrant workers are also sometimes made to understand that the repercussions of complaining will not just fall on them, said Rao.
"We know that some recruiters are particularly ruthless, and if one employee, if one migrant worker tries to stand up against a recruiter, then the recruiter might blacklist the entire worker's community in retaliation," he said.
"Migrant workers have that communal pressure to essentially just keep their head down and work."
P.E.I. is one of a number of provinces that is moving toward improving protections for temporary foreign workers, Rao said.