December 18 is International Migrants Day, which marks an important occasion to reflect on and amplify migrant justice activism. I had the privilege of sitting down with Juliana Dalley (she/her/hers), staff lawyer at Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), a legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing justice for migrant workers.
We chatted about developments regarding migrant justice in Canada, how gendered violence shows up in the context of migrant worker employment relationships, and the overwhelming barriers that persist for migrant workers.
The wonderful Juliana Dalley!
A huge thank you to Juliana for sharing her expertise and contributing to the conversation around how to achieve justice for migrants.
Question: Can you share a little bit about what led you to do this work?
A: I became interested in the field of migrant justice before starting law school. I’ve always been struck—especially learning more about it through working with temporary foreign workers and people with precarious migration status while in law school and afterwards—by the disconnect where there is overt and very blatant discrimination and unequal treatment of migrants that is openly tolerated and endorsed by our legal system.
I find it’s one of the areas where you see very clearly what would be considered in any other field unacceptable differential treatment, but because it’s subjected against non-citizens, it’s essentially tolerated.
I find there’s this irony that one of the leading equality cases, Andrews, which is this celebrated decision in establishing a broad and purposive interpretation of equality, was actually a case about discrimination based on citizenship brought by a white British man. We don’t see these principles being applied in practice to non-citizens, particularly non-citizens of colour, non-citizens from the global south, and women of colour. I’ve been really struck by that and have wanted to devote my legal advocacy to trying to dismantle those underlying structures that place non-citizens in situations of inequality.
Question: What are some of the barriers migrant workers face in BC or Canada? What changes would you like to see to dismantle those barriers?
A: We work with folks with precarious migration status, so that can be people who came to Canada under the temporary foreign worker program. It’s coming to Canada to fill jobs that Canadians are unwilling to do, essentially, but it can also include people who have no immigration status at all.
To come to Canada to work, in our experience, nearly all of our clients have paid some kind of fee for a job, basically a recruitment fee. It is illegal to charge someone money for a job in Canada, however, because of the international links of these recruiters and the fact that they’re sometimes operating with dubious or confusing links in Canada, [it] makes it very difficult to enforce your rights. Folks don’t know about their rights, and they don’t know that in Canada this practice is prohibited.
People end up paying exorbitant amounts of money—thousands or tens of thousands of dollars—on the promise of a better life in Canada. These recruiters and consultants make all these kinds of false promises—promises of pathways to permanent residence, of excellent working conditions. These promises often turn out to be false. People are experiencing push-pull factors and especially for women, there may be a lack of opportunities in one’s home country. Folks arrive in Canada, often with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, on closed work permits.
A closed work permit means that the worker is only allowed to work for one particular employer. There is limited labour mobility because the worker’s status is tied to their employment; their ability to remain in Canada, ability to work and ability to support themselves, is all tied to the continuation of this employment relationship. This combination of recruitment debt and limited labour mobility creates a huge power imbalance and creates the conditions for exploitation.
Closed work permits create a huge disincentive to speak out against poor working conditions because if the worker loses their job, they won’t be able to support themselves, they won’t be able to support their family, and they may not be able to make the debt payments[. T]hat can put them and their family in their home country at risk.
There is increasing recognition of the intersection between migration status and gender for those facing human rights violations.
I’ve had clients who’ve received threats when they stopped making debt payments and they’ve had family members beat up overseas. These conditions often trap workers in situations of exploitation and, to me, is one of the biggest barriers in terms of access to justice. In order for someone to come forward to make a human rights complaint or to make any kind of claim against their employer, they have to know that their status in Canada is secure. They need some way of being assured they won’t face removal, they won’t face potential arrest or detention, and that’s very, very difficult. I think those are some of the major barriers.
In addition to that, there’s isolation. Often people are here without community connections. Their employers may restrict their ability to engage with members of their community, they may restrict their movement, they may hold their passports. People aren’t getting the support they need and they’re reliant on their employer for many things.
Lack of language skills can also be a huge barrier. All these things operate together as barriers to decent work and access to justice. What we try to do when people come to us—they either gather the courage to leave or there’s been breakdown in the employment relationship—we try to help people to regularize their status and get access to the supports they need. Those are often the first steps to helping people feel like they can come forward and seek justice.
Question: What are some of the ways in which gendered violence shows up in the context of migrant justice?
A: It comes up in a number of ways. Coming out of the vulnerability and dependence that workers often experience and how this creates the conditions for exploitation to occur, for women in particular, this opens them up to vulnerability of gender-based exploitation and violence.
For example, caregiving work in our society is predominantly performed by women, and there is a shortage of care available, both child care and elder care. There’s a demand for women to perform caregiving work in the home. When workers are working in the home, it’s a private space and there’s isolation that, when combined with the conditions of dependency, puts women at high risk of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace.
We have seen human rights decisions that have looked at this, like the PN decision. This woman, P.N., was brought to Canada by her employer, who brutally exploited and sexually assaulted her. The tribunal recognized that the conditions that she was working under meant that she was treated as a “virtual slave.” She succeeded in proving that she had experienced discrimination and she was awarded one of the highest amounts in terms of damages for injury to dignity in the Tribunal’s history at that time. There is increasing recognition of the intersection between migration status and gender for those facing human rights violations.
Many of the women who I’ve worked with were essentially survivors of trafficking. They fell victim and were preyed on by recruiters … entic[ing] them with the promises of a better life. Often the women who are their victims had their basic needs going unmet. For example, they may have been victims of domestic violence in their home countries and were unable to seek protection […]. A huge part of understanding the global phenomenon of migration is understanding the inequalities facing women worldwide.
Question: How has the landscape of migrant justice changed since you began this work?
A: When I first started really working in this area, it was about five or six years ago, there’s been an increasing recognition of the unique vulnerabilities that migrant workers face in Canada. That’s really positive. There’s been an increasing body of jurisprudence from human rights tribunals and courts recognizing that migrant workers face unique barriers. But there is still a long, long way to go.
One of the successes has been a recent piece of legislation passed by the provincial government, which is the Temporary Foreign Worker Protection Act. [It] was enacted last year as a result of really sustained activism by migrant workers, and their advocates, and allies. [It contains] changes that would provide effective protection to workers from unscrupulous recruiters and consultants that prey on these workers and exploit their vulnerabilities.
In 2015, a campaign called Rising Up Against Unjust Recruitment was formed, led by migrant workers who had experienced exploitation and abuse from consultants, and community organizations and other allies who were supporting them. We lobbied, we held press conferences, we engaged in a lot of activism to get this legislation passed [and] we pushed for it to be a model in Canada of how to effectively deal with this issue. The provincial government was open to listening to us and did pass this legislation.
[I]t starts with the recognition of the intersectionality of women who are in Canada, with precarious immigration status, who experience unequal treatment as a result of their immigration status and because their identities as women.
We’re really excited about that. It’s not fully in force yet, so we’ll have to see what the actual implementation looks like. One of the key pieces that we were advocating for is effective, proactive enforcement. One of the problems with our employment standards regime right now is that it relies on people to come forward and make complaints. With the intersecting vulnerabilities that migrant workers face, there are so many barriers to them doing so.
You can’t wait for the abuse to happen and then deal with it, you need to stop the abuse from occurring in the first place and provide effective remedies for people who’ve experienced abuse. We’ll see what ends up happening with this legislation, but it’s very exciting and it’s a success that we’re very proud of.
In terms of the federal government, we would like to see more [done] to effectively stop exploitation from occurring. At the end of the day, what I think is the root cause of a lot of the vulnerabilities is the fact that workers are on closed work permits. If you eliminate closed work permits and allow workers to work for any employer, I think it’s going to result in a lot of the barriers eroding. That’s one of the things we’ve been pushing for.
There was a standing committee report from the HUMA committee in Parliament a few years ago that studied this issue and did recommend the elimination of closed work permits. The government said we’re not going to do that. Now, a few years later, they’ve implemented a new program, which, is the open work permit for vulnerable workers program. It would allow a worker who is experiencing, or is at risk of, abuse in their employment and who is on a closed work permit to apply for an open work permit.
This program was announced earlier this year and we’ve had now about six months of experience with it, and there are significant problems both in terms of its implementation and its scope. We’re going to continue to push for the elimination of closed work permits entirely, because I think that’s what we need in order to have a more equal society.
Question: What would solidarity from the feminist legal community look like?
A: I think there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration and solidarity between the migrant justice community and the feminist legal community. I think it starts with the recognition of the intersectionality of women who are in Canada, with precarious immigration status, who experience unequal treatment as a result of their immigration status and because their identities as women. I think beginning from that assumption, there are so many different ways that we can work together.
For instance, on the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, this is something that I think the feminist legal community and migrant justice community can really ally on. Migrant Workers Centre recently launched a new project in partnership with Immigrant Services Society of BC called the Respect at Work Project, where we will be holding legal clinics and offering legal advice and education to newcomers who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and offering training on sexual harassment for service providers who work with newcomers.
We are trying to open a space for this conversation and educate people about what sexual harassment is and that it’s not okay, and what their options and rights are. We’re really excited about this project and we hope that it will be a way for folks who have experienced this kind of treatment to recognize it for what it is, know that it’s not okay and seek justice. I think that’s one thing that we’re eager to partner on with the feminist legal community, because I know that so much work has been done on this issue. It will be great to collaborate.
Amelia Roth is an articling student at West Coast LEAF. She is passionate about using law as a tool to challenge systemic oppression while examining how these systems are reproduced in law.
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