Ontario is clamping down on temporary help agencies and demanding they get licensed by January next year in a bid to stop the exploitation of temporary foreign workers.
Temporary Help Agencies (THA) and recruiters, some of whom have been illegally paying foreign nationals less than the minimum wage and denying them basic employment rights, will have to get a licence to operate in the province as of Jan. 1, 2024.
“While temporary help agencies are vital to Ontario’s businesses and jobseekers looking to get their foot in the door, for too long they have operated in a grey zone that allows criminals to prey on vulnerable workers,” said provincial Immigration Minister Monte McNaughton.
“Our government’s licensing system will ensure law-abiding businesses can have confidence in the THAs and recruiters they work with and that those who abuse workers face the harshest fines in Canada and are banned from operating in our province.”
The roughly 2,300 placement agencies and temporary help business locations in Ontario in December 2022 employed about 114,000 full-time employees last year.
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But the sector is known to be fraught with exploitation.
In 2020-21, ministry inspections on THA use on farms and in food processing plants, storage and warehousing operations and retirement homes found $4.2 million was owed to more than 10,000 employees even as the businesses who benefited from that labour remained unaware of these violations of the provincial labour laws.
With the coming changes, both businesses and jobseekers will be able to check the ministry’s online database before working with a THA or recruiter, to see if they have met the province’s stringent licensing requirements.
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It will be against the law for companies to knowingly use unlicensed businesses for staffing and those who hire deceitful recruiters will be required to repay workers for any illegal fees charged to them.
THAs and recruiters will need as of the new year to provide $25,000 in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit that can be used to repay owed wages to employees. Offenders could face up to a $50,000 penalty based on repeat violations, the highest amount in Canada.
Industries that rely heavily on temporary foreign workers welcomed the beefed-up protections for their workers, saying it will protect a key component of their workforce.
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“These workers are essential to the operations of greenhouse vegetable farms, and ensuring their safety and protections are vital to the continued operations of our sector,” said George Gilvesy, chair of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) industry association.
Chris Bloore, president and chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario, echoed those sentiments.
“Recruiters and temporary help agencies are critical to helping tourism and hospitality businesses access the skilled workers they need to thrive in Ontario year-round,” said Bloore.
Human Rights Organizations Applaud Beefed-Up Protections For Temporary Foreign Workers
“This new and robust licensing system is a welcome tool to protect some of the most essential workers in our industry and to support businesses in choosing reputable recruitment partners.”
Human rights organizations also applauded the move to add more protection for temporary foreign workers.
“The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking supports Ontario’s efforts to bring greater accountability to the recruitment industry,” said Julia Drydyk, the organization’s executive director.
“The new registry will help instill transparency and ensure the government has more information to protect foreign nationals from fraudulent recruiters. This initiative is one of many important steps that we need to take to combat labour trafficking and abusive labour practices in this province.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data reveals Ontario is by far the most popular destination for foreign nationals coming to work in Canada through the International Mobility Program (IMP) and Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).
Last year, Ontario was the destination of choice for almost a third, 30.3 per cent, of all foreign nationals coming to Canada through the TFWP. The province welcomed 41,185 temporary foreign workers through that program in 2022.
Ontario also benefited from the arrival of 180,080 foreign nationals, or almost 38.7 per cent of the total number who arrived through the IMP, that year.
The two programs together allowed Ontario employers access to a labour force of 221,265 foreign nationals. That’s roughly the same as the entire population of Oakville.
THAs and recruiters who apply for a licence, which will have to be renewed annually, before Jan. 1 next year will be allowed to continue operating until they receive a decision from the province on their application.
But if a licence or licence renewal is refused, the applicant will have only 30 days to cease operating as a THA or recruiter.
Ontario also toughened its Working for Workers Act, 2023 earlier this year to give the province the means to slap the biggest fines in Canada on business people who withhold the passports of their temporary foreign workers.
“Anyone who preys on vulnerable members in our community has no place in our society,” said McNaughton.
“If you think you’re going to deny someone’s basic human rights by withholding their passport, we’re going to hit your pocketbook, and you will be behind bars for a long time. We will continue to use every tool in our toolbox to ensure Ontario is a province where hard work pays off and big dreams come true.”
Under that law, which has been sent for a third reading, withholding a foreign national’s passport or work permit could lead to fines ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 for every worker whose rights are violated.
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In addition to the per-passport penalties, those found guilty of breaking the proposed law would be liable to either a fine of up to $500,000 or up to a year in prison – or both. Corporations convicted would be liable to fines of up to $1 million.
The Working for Workers law, which would be the third iteration of this law which has had previous versions in each of the last two years, also includes proposed changes to protect remote workers during mass terminations and expands the number of reasons for which reservists can take military leave.
The act would also force construction sites to have women’s-only washrooms and boost cancer coverage for firefighters.
Megan Walker, the now-retired executive director of the London Abused Women’s Centre, says the proposed legislation will send a strong message to those who exploit migrant workers.
“The government is giving migrant workers back their human right to have control over their own documents including their passports,” said Walker.
Since November 2021, Ontario created a new unit to ferret out human trafficking and this has already led to criminal charges, occupational health and safety and employment standards prosecutions, orders and other compliance activities.
In its first year of operation, the unit received over 300 tips, initiated investigations and helped 3,500 workers recover over $400,000 in wages.
York Regional Police chief Jim MacSween says he and his investigators in the force’s human trafficking section are eager to see this new legislation come into effect.
“This legislation … will provide us with another tool to fight labour trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable people in our community,” said MacSween. “This new law will allow our officers to hold individuals and companies accountable for their actions.”
Experience As A Temporary Foreign Worker Is Often A Stepping Stone To Permanent Residency
Under the Express Entry system, immigrants can apply for permanent residency online if they meet the eligibility criteria for one of three federal immigration programs, the Federal Skilled Worker Program (FSW), Federal Skilled Trades Program (FST), and Canada Experience Class Program (CEC), or a participating provincial immigration program.
Candidates’ profiles then are ranked against each other according to a points-based system called the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS). The highest-ranked candidates will be considered for an Invitation to Apply (ITA) for permanent residence. Those receiving an ITA must quickly submit a full application and pay processing fees, within a delay of 90-days.
Through a network of Provincial Nominee Programs (PNP), almost all of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories can also nominate skilled worker candidates for admission to Canada when they have the specific skills required by local economies. Successful candidates who receive a provincial or territorial nomination can then apply for Canadian permanent residence through federal immigration authorities.