A UN report slammed the predatory practices of Canada’s TFW program. Some of the worst abuses of this "breeding ground" for modern slavery are here in Alberta

In September, following a two-week visit to Canada, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery Tomoya Obokata declared Canadian programs that tie foreign labourers to a specific employer, including the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program, to be a “breeding ground” for modern slavery. 

“Employer-specific work permit regimes, including certain Temporary Foreign Worker Programmes, make migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation,” Obokata said in a statement released at the end of his tour..

Canada has become increasingly reliant on TFWs under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with the International Mobility Program, rather than the official TFW Program, representing the majority of permits. In 2021, the 775,000 TFWs in Canada represented a 92 per cent increase from 2015 and 600 per cent increase from 2000. 

A report relaying the findings from Obokata’s visit said this program “creates a dependency relationship between employers and employees, making the latter vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, who may feel unable to report for fear of losing their migration status and/or employment.”

The report also identified a requirement that workers stay in housing provided by their employer as another impediment towards abuses being reported, because workers could “face homelessness if they lose their employment,” noting the lack of affordable housing in Canada.

Obokota didn’t stop in Alberta. His visit was confined to Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Moncton and Vancouver. 

Migrant workers working in Norfolk County, Ontario. Photo by Michael Swan

Nearly 25% of all TFW violations were here in Alberta, say feds

The federal government keeps a list of companies who have abused the terms of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which was instituted by Jason Kenney in 2014 when he was the federal employment minister.

The list shows that Alberta companies have disproportionately abused the system by deceiving workers about their job expectations and pay, providing insufficient COVID safeguards and neglecting to file the appropriate documentation to inspectors. 

Almost a quarter of companies found to have violated the terms of the TFWP are based in Alberta. With 183 violations, Alberta has three more than Ontario, despite having less than a third of its population. 

The list, however, provides only general information about companies’ violations, their punishment and whether they’ve paid any fines. It doesn’t specify how many workers were impacted or what the specific circumstances were. 

Marco Luciano, director of the migrant workers advocacy group Migrante Alberta and Canada’s representative in the International Migrants Alliance, says this lack of detail means the list’s function is largely cosmetic. 

“It hasn't really helped organizations like Migrante and other advocacy organizations precisely because it's too vague,” he told The Progress Report. 

“I'm not sure what it's for, but my guess is really just to satisfy and calm people.” 

The most prolific offender listed in Alberta is Edmonton-based Canadian Brewhouse, with violations found at eight of its restaurants in Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Lloydminster and Winnipeg, as well as a north Calgary catering company, and even its Edmonton corporate office. 

From July 12, 2021 to March 31, 2022, these locations accumulated $47,000 in fines, ranging from $1,000 each for its corporate office, Red Deer and Lloydminster locations, and catering company, to $15,000 at its Fort McMurray location. All but the catering company paid their fines. 

The Fort Saskatchewan location was found to have violated federal or provincial laws, but the database doesn’t specify which laws it violated. For this, it received a $13,000 fine.

The company didn’t respond to a request from the Progress Report to explain the context of these violations and what mechanisms the company has implemented to ensure they don’t occur again.

Photo of Lasagna bites from the Canadian Brewhouse Facebook page

The single largest penalty handed out to any Alberta company was Jan. 13 — $153,000, and a five-year ban on hiring TFWs, for Luigi's Concrete in Sherwood Park. 

The reason listed: “The pay or working conditions didn't match, or were not better than, what was listed on the offer of employment, or the job was not the same as what was listed on the offer of employment.”

The company can resume hiring TFWs in 2028. Owner Luigi Angotti didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

The government blacklist includes representation from the agriculture industry, which represents the largest stream of labourers who come to Canada through the TFWP. 

In Barrhead, family poultry farm Malda Farms was fined $4,250 in November 2021 for not providing an accurate description of working conditions and pay on their application form. Rachel Malda, who was identified as the farm’s assistant manager in a 2015 Canadian Poultry magazine article, didn’t respond to a request for comment via Facebook Messenger. The farm has paid its fine. 

Bridgeview Gardens Shaftsbury in Peace River — the largest strawberry farm in northern Alberta, which also grows vegetables — was fined $1,000 in July 2021 for not providing accommodations where workers could physically distance themselves during the pandemic. 

Bridgeview Gardens owner Mike Marusiak told The Progress Report that the federal government never provided an explanation for the fine beyond what’s listed on its website, describing a labyrinthine government bureaucracy he had to navigate in order to get answers. 

Marusiak said Bridgeview Gardens has six Mexican TFWs doing various farming work this season; during COVID they had three, due to quarantining requirements restricting each worker to their own room. 

Eventually, he learned his violation stemmed from not having his TFWs quarantine at a hotel for three days immediately after arriving in Canada, which he contends is unfair, since the hotel quarantine program ended in August 2021 — after he was fined. 

Despite being listed as ineligible before he paid his fine in April 2023, he said he “had no issues” hiring TFWs in 2022. 

“I've had a guy stay with me for 21 years. Now if I wasn't a good boss, he wouldn't be here for 21 years,” said Marusiak. 

He claimed he’s lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions dollars, because of my workers being delayed,” which he attributed to “blowback” from the feds. 

“I've confronted the bureaucrats and I've been penalized for it financially,” he said

Also in July 2021, Northern Honey Bee Farm in Grande Prairie was fined $1,000 for work conditions and pay not matching or exceeding those on the application form and not providing the appropriate documentation to inspectors. A corporate registry search indicates this company no longer exists. 

There are no mechanisms in place to prevent companies that are fined or suspended from hiring TFWs from starting a new company and begin hiring TFWs again, Luciano added.

About a dozen Alberta companies are listed as numbered companies, which makes it even more difficult to hold them accountable. 

“It doesn't really help in terms of cracking down on unscrupulous employers, or even the agencies that actually connect these people to these bad employers,” he said of the blacklist. “It's a problem.”

Ultimately, Luciano said, problems with the TFW program are structural, rooted in its very temporariness, in which migrants from the Global South are invited to the Global North to serve business interests before being shipped back to where they came from. 

“It will be repackaged over and over again, but it will remain temporary,” he said.