'Just treat us like humans': Temporary foreign workers in B.C. ride for rights, protections
Experts say employer-specific work permits make workers vulnerable to exploitation
The household plants in many British Columbians' homes and gardens are planted, moved and shipped by people like Guadalupe Herrera, a temporary foreign worker from Mexico.
Herrera is employed at a nursery where, on paper, he is entitled to the same breaks, overtime pay and working conditions as Canadian workers.
But Herrera says he often works up to 15 hours without a break, and he and his colleagues sleep on the floor of crowded staff accommodation, which they share with rats and mice.
"The boss doesn't recognize the people, doesn't say 'go rest'… doesn't recognize our labour," said Herrera.
Herrera was one of more than two dozen workers and allies who gathered in Vancouver on Sunday to call for better working conditions, health care, stronger protections and a clear path to residency for the more than 32,000 temporary foreign workers in B.C.
Organizers with local migrant advocacy group Dignidad Migrante Society say after being praised as "heroes" during the pandemic, temporary workers want their essential and "invisible" work to be recognized with equivalent rights, not just the cheers and pot-banging heard on Sunday.
Dressed up as superhero apples, tomatoes, berries, grapes, pears, peas and carrots — just some of the produce they help put on on consumers' plates — workers cycled from Thornton Park to the seawall and along False Creek.
Participant Daniel Nigenda said it's already difficult for temporary foreign workers being far away from their family and culture.
"You miss your family, you miss your food, but you are leaving your country just to find better conditions to have extra money to send to your family," said Nigenda, who is from Mexico and is employed as a cleaner.
"We're trying hard just to work decently here in Canada, but we want the employers to just treat us like humans," he added.
He says he has had employers deny overtime pay and push and kick him when they said he was not working fast enough.
- Advocates, migrant workers help fellow migrants know their labour rights, health-care entitlement in B.C.
Workers vulnerable to exploitation: report
B.C. employers in industries including agriculture, construction, food service and cleaning are turning to temporary foreign workers in record numbers to fill jobs in the province's tight labour market.
Employers in Canada can hire temporary foreign workers for up to two years, if they can prove that they were unable to hire a Canadian to do the job.
But workers' permits are specific to their position and employer, meaning if they are fired, quit or are injured and unable to work they may face deportation.
They can also be paid below minimum wage in B.C. because their wages are tied to the federal median wage.
These rules make them rife for exploitation and discourage them from reporting abuse, workers and some experts say.
A March 2022 report from B.C.'s Migrant Workers Centre found workers face physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse, and often live in crowded and sub-par accommodation.
Many employers withhold wages, while workers are exploited by both immigration consultants and employers who try to charge illegal fees to apply for temporary foreign work permits on their behalves, the report found.
In 2019, the federal government created the Open Work Permit for Vulnerable Workers, which allows temporary foreign workers who claim they are being abused to apply for an open work permit.
But they must have proof of the abuse, and long wait times and language barriers can make the application process difficult and intimidating, said Raul Gatica, an organizer with Dignidad Migrante.
Cecilia Moreno came to Canada to work in construction, but says she quickly found herself in an abusive situation.
She was fired and is now waiting to hear if her application for an open work permit was approved so she can find a new job.
"We are riding for everybody," Moreno said on Sunday, "because they live in very bad situations, and bad conditions, and they don't have the same rights as Canadian workers."
CBC has contacted Employment and Social Development Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Labour for comment.
With files from Yasmin Gandham