Asylum seeker's workplace accident highlights gaps in Quebec labour law

Quebec's labour minister says she is troubled by the story of a Haitian asylum seeker who was badly injured at a meat processing plant after he was recruited by a temp agency that assigned him a fake identity.

Quebec ministers respond to CBC report about a Haitian asylum seeker who was badly injured on the job

Quebec Labour Minister Dominique Vien says she was left 'shaken' by the experience of a Haitian asylum seeker. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec's labour minister says she is troubled by the story of a Haitian asylum seeker who was badly injured at a meat processing plant after he was recruited by a temp agency that assigned him a fake identity. 

"I was, like many other people, quite shaken," Dominique Vien said at the National Assembly on Wednesday morning.

Vien said a bill tabled by the Couillard government last week would address the responsibilities of "undisciplined" temporary employment agencies for the first time under Quebec law.

The asylum seeker's story was first reported by CBC News on Wednesday.

Under the province's current labour legislation, it's unclear who is responsible for a worker hired by a temp agency if an accident occurs. 

If passed, the bill would require temp agencies to become licensed and follow regulations.

The companies that use the agencies would also be required to share certain responsibilities.

But Manuel Salamanca, a spokesperson for the Association of Temporary Agency Workers, says new bill isn't clear enough on how it would address the poor working conditions often associated with temp work. 

"If an accident happens, who has to provide [compensation], the agency or the client enterprises? Who has more power over the conditions of safety of the workers?" he said.

Paulo received his work permit Nov. 3, three months after he arrived in Canada and more than two weeks after he'd already had a work accident. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

As CBC reported earlier, the agency that recruited Paulo — whose name has been changed for his safety — did so at a metro station in northwest Montreal in September.

He had been on his way to buy winter clothes when he was accosted by a man rounding workers up into rickety vans to go to factories, Paulo said. 

Desperate to pay back the thousands of dollars he'd borrowed to travel to Canada with his wife and to help support his family and eight-year-old son in Haiti, Paulo says he felt he had no choice but to accept the offer to work.

Cracks in immigration system

Paulo says he told the man working for the temp agency he did not yet have his work permit, but was told it was OK as long as he'd applied for it.

On the ride to the meat processing plant, Paulo says he was handed a slip of paper with someone else's name and social insurance number on it. He was to assume that person's identity in order to work. 

Three weeks later, after being asked to work on a machine that shaves the fat off pork, the device slipped and sliced the skin off the top of his right hand. 

Quebec Immigration Minister David Heurtel said Paulo's experience exposes cracks in the federal immigration system. 

The period of time between asylum seekers' arrivals in Canada and when they get their work permits creates too much of a grey zone, Heurtel said. 

Manuel Salamanca and Jacques Dago of the Association for Temporary Agency Workers have been calling for more protections for undocumented workers. (CBC)

Some permits can take months to be emitted.

Heurtel said he's been calling for asylum seekers' work permits to be sent out faster. 

Paulo received his work permit about two weeks after the accident.

"They need to support themselves," Heurtel said. "They want to contribute and don't want to stay put, twiddling their thumbs."

'They came to our border with a lot of hope'

More than 20,000 asylum seekers crossed into Canada last year, according to Canadian Border Services Agency estimates, and a vast majority of them arrived in Quebec.

Frantz André, who founded an advocacy group for Haitians without immigration status and has taken Paulo under his wing, believes more information should be shared with newcomers to the province.

"It's many months after [the influx of asylum seekers] and even now they're still improvising in processing those asylum seekers' demands," he said. 

Frantz André, who has been helping Haitian asylum seekers settle in Montreal, says he's developed a close friendship with Paulo. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

André said many Haitians were desperate to escape the threat of being sent back to Haiti from the U.S. after President Donald Trump announced the end of a program granting them protected status in the country.

Among other things, André said the asylum seekers were drawn to Canada after reading a tweet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last January, saying Canada would welcome those fleeing persecution, terror and war.

"They came to our border with a lot of hope that Canada was a country that is opening its arms, to realize finally it is not happening. It is not the way they're expecting it," André said.