Closing the door to slavery

We would like to believe that slavery is a vestige of the past in Canada. An injustice that is just right for the history books and commemorative days where we repeat “never again”.

The United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery recently came to shake our beautiful illusions. Temporary foreign workers in Canada with closed work permits, tying them to a single employer, risk being subjected to a form of modern slavery, found Tomoya Obokata, a UN expert on international law and human rights, who produced a devastating report on the issue1.

When he speaks of “modern slavery”, the UN special rapporteur refers to the most serious form of exploitation and control exercised over workers. That which occurs when human beings are treated as if they were the property of their employer.

Deeply troubled by the stories of exploitation and mistreatment of migrants he encountered in several provinces, including Quebec, the special rapporteur urged Canada to do more to protect the rights of temporary foreign workers.

If some are surprised that we are talking about slavery in a democratic country like Canada, those who experienced it are not at all.

Talk to Benedicte Carole Ze, a Quebecer of Cameroonian origin who is one of the workers who met the United Nations special rapporteur. Well before the UN got involved, Benedicte herself did not hesitate to speak of “modern slavery” to describe the situation of extreme vulnerability in which the Quebec agricultural entrepreneur who did it kept her. come here in 2016 with a closed license2.

Concretely, what does that mean, Benedicte?

This means not having the same rights as other workers. Being at the mercy of an employer who, if not in good faith, can do what he wants with you.


Arriving in Canada as a temporary foreign worker holding a closed permit, Benedicte Carole Ze had the feeling of being treated like a modern slave.

That the life of a human being belongs to another human being, who can decide if you have the right to stay in the country, to work, to be paid or to live normally, for me, that is slavery .

Benedicte Carole Ze

For Benedicte, on a daily basis, this meant: being forced to work seven days a week; being forced to increase unpaid working hours; having virtually no days off for two years; being kept in ignorance of their rights; be isolated from the outside world; being threatened with being sent back to her country if she did not obey her boss; live with fear in your stomach…

“And I, again, express myself in French. Imagine a person who doesn’t speak French…”

Benedicte, who, after fleeing her employer, managed to get by thanks to the “guardian angels” regularization program during the pandemic, is now fighting alongside other migrant workers so that no one has to to experience what she experienced.

“We are not considered human beings in Canada!” “, tells me Gabriel Allahdua, who, like Benedicte, is a member of the Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers, having filed a request for collective action last September for Ottawa to abolish work permits. closed3.

Originally from Saint Lucia, Gabriel arrived in the country in January 2012 to work on an Ontario farm, after the hurricane Thomas devastated his native island. Himself an heir to colonialism and slavery – his mother is a descendant of African slaves sent to the Caribbean – the man was quite shocked to realize that history was somehow repeating itself for him, so that he became the property of a farm in a country he had idealized.


Gabriel Allahdua is the first agricultural migrant worker in Canada to publish his autobiography.

I am not surprised by the UN expert’s report. What is surprising, however, is that Canadians are so disconnected from this reality.

Gabriel Allahdua

Migrant workers in the agriculture and food processing sector are most at risk of modern slavery and forced labour. But citizens do not realize the human cost of their plate, he notes.

The fact that migrant workers are most often invisible and condemned to silence fuels a certain indifference towards them. This is why Gabriel, encouraged by McGill University history professor Edward Dunsworth, broke this silence by becoming the first agricultural worker in Canada to publish his autobiography4.

“I am a slave like my mother’s ancestors, exploited for my work, far from home,” we read from the first lines of his book.

A specialist in the history of migration and labor in Canada, Edward Dunsworth recalls that racism was, originally, one of the foundations of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, launched in 1966 as a pilot project to bring in workers. Jamaican work in Ontario.

While at the same time, white farmers from Great Britain were readily accepted to recruit as permanent immigrants, Canadian authorities feared that black farm workers from the Caribbean would settle in the country permanently. Hence the creation of a seasonal program making them temporary workers… permanently.

Today, the historian observes, discrimination based on social class determines the fate of those considered good enough to work, but not good enough to stay. “Permanent immigration is generally for people from higher social classes doing ‘higher skilled’ jobs while ‘low skilled’ immigrants in agriculture or food are increasingly stuck in temporary programs. »

If abusive employers are to blame, successive governments which, under pressure from the employers’ lobby, have opened the door wider and wider to disposable migrant labor while turning a blind eye to the human rights violations they endure are even more so.

Voices have been raised to denounce the situation for decades. Researchers have been documenting the issue for decades and committees have been making recommendations that end up on a shelf.

To avoid any form of modern slavery, the UN special rapporteur in turn recommends that Ottawa simplify access to open work permits and create pathways to permanent residence for all migrant workers, without distinction.

“In a country that prides itself on its diversity and multiculturalism and prides itself on being a champion of human rights, is it right to deny basic rights to migrant workers in this way? », asks Gabriel.

The answer is obvious. Why does the Canadian government continue to tolerate the intolerable?

Abolish closed licenses?

Although the federal government says it “takes the safety and dignity of foreign workers seriously,” there is no indication that it intends to abolish closed permits and facilitate their access to permanent residence.

Asked about this, the office of the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Marc Miller, sent an email response saying that “every person deserves a safe work environment where their rights are respected.”

Changes have been made in this direction, it is specified. “Since June 2019, a foreign worker with an employer-specific work permit can apply for an open work permit if they are mistreated by their current employer. The open work permit allows them to quickly exit these situations and seek new jobs with another employer. »

For Eugénie Depatie-Pelletier, general director of the Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers, these changes are insufficient to guarantee respect for the fundamental rights of all temporary workers.

“We are not impressed by the measures put in place to minimize abuse. This continues to maintain a context of fear and silence, because the legal status of the worker remains dependent on the employer. »

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