If you have enjoyed Ontario-grown produce today, you have likely relied on one of the more than 360,000 foreign workers currently living in Canada.
The Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) is a government program that allows employers to hire foreign workers for positions that they are unable to fill with Canadian citizens. Despite the program’s growth over the last few decades, the treatment of foreign workers under the program has been questioned by advocates for migrants’ and workers’ rights. Yet, not enough attention has been given to how the program puts the mental and physical health of its workers at risk.
In September, a federal parliamentary committee released a report proposing changes to the TFWP. The changes are an attempt to respond to criticisms that employment is highly precarious, that work permits that tie workers to one employer increases the risk of employer exploitation and abuse and that the program fails to offer secure pathways to permanent residency or citizenship. Currently, the “cumulative duration” rule states that foreign workers can work in Canada for up to four years but then must leave Canada for four years before reapplying to the TFWP. This makes it difficult for most temporary foreign workers to obtain permanent residency status, especially in cases where work permits expire before workers meet the requirements for permanent residency status.
Consequently, proposed revisions include offering a more secure path to permanent residency status by eliminating the “cumulative duration” rule and eliminating employer-specific work permits.
While we support the proposed changes to the TFWP, the impact that such revisions would have on temporary foreign workers’ health must be a part of this discussion. The World Health Organization has reported that precarious work contributes to worsened health status and health inequities, especially among foreign workers. In a recent report on vulnerable workers, the Law Commission of Ontario explained that precarious work is linked to negative health outcomes, including increased risk of negative mental health symptoms, occupational injuries, and illnesses due to lack of access to medical care.
Negative mental health outcomes among temporary foreign workers have shown to be associated with isolation and precarious working conditions. A 2011 CMAJ study found that “marginalization, discrimination and isolation augment the stress and loneliness experienced by migrant workers coping with family separation, social and geographic isolation, and little or no opportunities for recreational activities.” By eliminating TFWP employer-specific contracts and the “cumulative duration” rule, temporary foreign workers may feel encouraged to establish roots in their new communities, lessening the effect of isolation. However, the proposed changes do not address issues resulting from family separation. For temporary foreign workers, applications for family members’ residency are frequently denied on disability grounds and work permits are often denied for spouses and children. These obstacles to family reunification can contribute to worsened mental health.
Additionally, temporary foreign workers, like foreign agricultural workers, are more likely to face dangerous working conditions, such as workplace injuries and exposure to harmful chemicals. The Migrant Worker Health Project, an initiative run by a team of health professionals, show that injury was the most common health concern among migrant farm workers between 2006 to 2010 in Simcoe, Ontario. Moreover, if foreign workers are injured, they can face deportation. Another CMAJ study found that between 2001 and 2011, 787 migrant farm workers in Ontario were sent back to their home countries for medical reasons. Despite these disturbing statistics, the TFWP revisions do not suggest a reversal on medical repatriation practices nor do they provide for adequate job safety training to reduce hazardous working conditions.
Finally, the three-month wait period for publicly funded health care further jeopardizes the health of temporary foreign workers. During this period, those under the TFWP depend on their employers to provide health insurance and sometimes have their requests for medical services delayed or denied. Migrant workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program do, meanwhile, have OHIP upon arrival, but they are still subject to uncertain work schedules and long hours, which can create barriers to accessing health care services. Temporary foreign workers also often lack transportation to health services in rural and remote areas, face language barriers, and fear deportation or dismissal once disclosing their health concerns to their employer. It is unacceptable to us that the proposed changes fail to guarantee health care coverage and access to routine medical care upon arrival.
While revisions to the TFWP could have a positive effect on temporary foreign workers’ health and well-being, advocating for migrant workers’ rights should not stop here. As a country that prides itself on being a leader in humanitarian action, we need to evaluate the ways in which our labour policies can have a toll on health and wellbeing.
Do we want our country’s response to growing labour market demands to be the exploitation and discrimination of migrant workers?
We, as future public health professionals, believe it is necessary to bring health to the forefront of this discourse, and hope that the government will recognize the health and human rights of all temporary foreign workers in Canada.