By Susan Lazarun, Vancouver Sun |

The B.C. government is establishing a registry for migrant workers designed to protect them from exploitation by employers and recruiting agents.

“Temporary foreign workers are vulnerable to abuse in the workplace, and it can be difficult for them to get help,” said B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains in an emailed response to criticism that B.C. lags behind other provinces in safeguarding migrant workers.

The goal of the new program is to protect migrant workers from issues like underpayment, overwork, assault, sexual assault and trafficking.

Bain said in the email that the province planned to pass a law in “coming weeks” that would pave the way for the registry “to better support vulnerable foreign workers by tracking both the employers and the foreign worker recruiters.”

Currently, workers from Mexico and other countries are allowed to work in Canada for up to eight months a year under federal programs such as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

The federal government keeps track of temporary foreign workers hired by Canadian companies through Labour Market Impact Assessment forms employers fill out before hiring temporary foreign workers.

Through the forms, the federal government is “aware of who is hiring those workers and is able to inspect the employers for compliance with program conditions,” said federal Employment and Social Development Ministry spokesman Christopher Simard in an email.

He said Ottawa operates a tip line for workers wanting to file a complaint and all allegations are reviewed. The federal ministry also conducts administrative reviews and on-site inspections.

Violations lead to fines or bans on hiring temporary foreign workers, and violators have their name published on the website.

Exploitation and trafficking of workers “is a problem,” said Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees, because migrant workers don’t have permanent-resident status, sometimes don’t speak English or French, are tied to a specific employer and are isolated in rural areas.

She said the range of incidents against them include “labour exploitation to sexual assaults and criminal acts and right up to trafficking, and some sort of holding people against their will either physically or psychologically.”

Because farm workers, foreign and local, are exempt from the protections offered under the Employment Standards Act, it’s difficult for them to get help, Dench said.

She called on the province to extend all regular labour protections to farm workers and to pass new legislation that specifically protects migrant workers.

Irene Lanzinger, of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said temporary foreign workers are vulnerable and need better protection under B.C. labour laws, or they should be hired as permanent residents.

Ottawa has received 3,000 allegations or complaints from foreign workers against employers across Canada since April 2016.

In that time, there were 49 non-compliant employers who faced penalties and 15 were in B.C. Those companies included Oliver’s Breads, KiTov Resources in Vancouver, WesTower Communications in Surrey, Coast School of Celtic Music Society of Gibsons and the Hindu Cultural Society and Community Centre of B.C., in Burnaby.

Simard said in the email that Employment and Social Development was currently also investigating unspecified allegations against Golden Eagle Farm in Pitt Meadows.

Byron Cruz, of social justice group Sanctuary Health, which advocates for migrant workers, said at least one Golden Eagle Farm worker, who came from Guatemala, complained her pay and working conditions had changed from what she was hired for. A company spokesman said he only become aware of the complaints after the berry season ended and the worker never brought up the concerns with management.

To combat abuse, Ottawa announced earlier this year a pilot project called the Migrant Worker Support Network in B.C. to help workers report problems and in December 2017, Employment and Social Development gave $93,000 to the Migrant Workers Dignity Association in Surrey to develop a campaign to help educate workers about their rights.

Last week, the federal Solicitor General gave the Migrant Workers Centre in Vancouver a $60,000 grant (with an extension for another two years at $40,000 a year) to develop an educational program for employers hiring temporary foreign workers.

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