A United Nations official on Wednesday denounced Canada’s temporary foreign worker program as a “breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

Tomoya Obokata, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, made the comments in Ottawa after spending 14 days in Canada.

“I am disturbed by the fact that many migrant workers are exploited and abused in this country,” he said.

“Agricultural and low-wage streams of the temporary foreign workers program constitute a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery.”

A man wears glasses and a blue shirt and tie.
Tomoya Obokata, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, says Canada’s temporary foreign worker program creates an unequal relationship between employers and employees. (Submitted by the UN Human Rights Commission)

Obokata’s comments echo those of Jamaican migrant workers who, in an open letter to their country’s ministry of labour last month, described their working conditions in Ontario as “systematic slavery.

The special rapporteur role was created by the UN in 2007. Its mandate includes investigating and advocating against forced or coerced labour.

Obokata said migrant workers face deportation if they lose their work permits, which also prevent them from changing employers if they face abuse.

“This creates a dependency relationship between employers and employees, making the latter vulnerable to exploitation,” he said, adding that many workers are reluctant to report abuse because they fear losing their permits.

Thousands of workers come to Canada each year to work through the program. Statistics Canada estimates that temporary foreign workers make up 15 per cent of Canada’s agricultural workforce.

The system came under scrutiny during the pandemic. Auditor General Karen Hogan reported in 2021 that the federal government did not do enough to ensure those workers were being protected.

Obokata said he spoke with a number of migrant workers who described having to work excessive hours with no access to overtime pay, being denied access to health care and being forced to live in cramped and unsanitary living conditions.

The UN official called on the federal government to give all temporary foreign workers a pathway to longer term or permanent residency and grant workers permits that would allow them to switch employers freely.

A bald man with glasses stands outside wearing a purple shirt.
Syed Hussan is the executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance of Canada. He says federal immigration policy is the root cause of the crisis with migrant workers. (CBC)

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said Obokata’s conclusions are nothing new.

“He’s repeating and he’s saying what we’ve been saying for a long time … migrant workers in this country are being exploited and permanent resident status is the primary solution to ensure that they have equal rights,” Hussan said.

The government launched and later extended a pilot program that opens up a pathway to permanent residency to a few thousand agricultural workers each year.

Hussan said he hopes Obokata’s comments will push the government to implement a permanent program for all temporary foreign workers.

“I think that if the UN rapporteur is ‘disturbed,’ it’s a message to the federal government that they’re doing something very, very wrong and they need [do an] about-turn and ensure status for all,” he said.

CBC News asked Immigration Minister Marc Miller’s office if the government would consider a permanent pathway for all temporary workers to gain permanent residency status. His office referred the question to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

A spokesperson for the department wouldn’t say if a permanent program is in the works and instead pointed to other pathways, like the agricultural worker pilot program.

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