Labour Trafficking in Alberta

Migrant workers are being lured to the province with false promises of a better life, only to find themselves trapped, exploited and abused. This is a glimpse at these hidden practices operating right under our noses.

Forcing workers to live in squalid conditions, sometimes under oppressive surveillance. Withholding pay for “expenses” and other mysterious “fees” and “fines.” Confiscating passports and bank cards so workers can’t leave. Threatening workers with deportation or harm if they complain about these or any other abuses.

No, this isn’t another story about forced labour in Qatar or Saudi Arabia. These things are happening right here in Alberta, in hotels and workshops, in farmers’ fields and in private homes. Even your favourite fast food joint might be using trafficked labour.

Though numbers are hard to come by, evidence suggests that human trafficking for the purposes of labour is big business in our province. And while activists have been raising the alarm for years, the abuses go on, unseen and largely ignored by the media and the general public.

“They’re horror stories,” says Devin Yeager, a labour relations officer with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). “Frankly, the things that are happening today, people would lose their minds over [if they knew].”


Ella’s story

“She used me until the last day of my visa.” Ella* (not her real name) weeps quietly as she tells her story. It was November 2015. Ella had been a virtual prisoner in a home in northeast Calgary for three years, forbidden to leave the house unescorted, working 14-hour days and sleeping on a sofabed with her few belongings crammed underneath. Her passport had been taken from her, as well as her bank card. Now, with her visa expired, her employer had tossed her out into the street. With nowhere else to go, she walked to the nearest CTrain station in search of help. There, she found a good Samaritan — a fellow Filipina who helped Ella find a boarding house. She had a safe place to sleep, at least. But she was still alone, homeless, unemployed, and now undocumented and facing possible deportation. She had no idea what she would do in the morning.


Trafficking is Exploitation

Stories like Ella’s are not new. As early as 2010, the RCMP singled out Alberta as being at the forefront of a rising number of complaints related to labour trafficking across the country. Reliable statistics don’t exist — there’s no national database, and many victims never come forward — but organizations that work with survivors of labour trafficking in the province have seen dozens of cases over the past few years. It’s widely believed that those cases are only the tip of the iceberg. So why aren’t we hearing more about it?

The problem, say advocates, starts with myths and stereotypes.

When we hear the word “trafficking” most of us imagine something out of the movies. A college student kidnapped by organized crime (Taken), or a shipping container packed with women smuggled from eastern Europe (The Wire). But in fact, kidnapping is rare, and smuggling people across borders isn’t necessary for a case to qualify as trafficking.

As defined by the Criminal Code of Canada, trafficking in persons occurs when someone “recruits, transports, transfers, receives, holds, conceals or harbours a person, or exercises control, direction or influence over the movements of a person, for the purpose of exploiting them or facilitating their exploitation.”

“It’s about exploitation, not movement,” says Amy Wilson of the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking Alberta (ACT Alberta).

Yet the image of women and girls in cages persists, and Wilson says these stereotypes can be incredibly harmful, making it harder for law enforcement and service providers to recognize real-life victims when they come across them. It may even make it more difficult for victims themselves to realize they’re being trafficked. That’s especially true given the vague wording of the criminal code, which leaves plenty of room for interpretation. “It can be quite challenging to accurately identify a case of human trafficking,” Wilson says.

The intersections between the illegal and the immoral, between trafficking and other forms of exploitation, are not always clear-cut. Jessica Juen works for Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), a local non-profit organization that provides settlement and integration services to all immigrants and refugees in southern Alberta. She says that when it comes to labour trafficking, even cases that involve extreme exploitation might still fall short of trafficking. “A lot of times,” says Juen, “I will not put clients in that box.”

There’s also a tendency to focus on sex trafficking, including in law enforcement and policy circles. Yet evidence suggests that human trafficking for the purposes of labour is actually more common, both globally and nationally. Here in Alberta, labour trafficking accounts for nearly half of the referrals to ACT Alberta, according to Wilson.

As for who’s using trafficked labour, it’s often everyday, legitimate businesses. You can find trafficked workers on farms, in nail salons, cleaning hotel rooms, or pushing a baby carriage down the street. Some employers may not even realize they’re using trafficked labour — though ACT Alberta insists that’s rare. Most of the time, says Wilson, employers are actively involved in the exploitation.

Migrant workers are especially vulnerable. Almost all of the labour trafficking cases ACT Alberta deals with involve victims who are foreign nationals.

“Most of the cases we see are with people entering the country with a valid visa,” Wilson says.

Marco Luciano is the director of Migrante Alberta, a community organization that works with migrants. He agrees that the majority of cases involve newcomers who have entered the country legally, as opposed to the prevailing stereotype about trafficking, which is “where they pay this guy, and he puts them in a trunk and they cross the border.”

Specifically, he points to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as the source of many of the problems — and he’s not alone.


A Problematic Program

Indentured labour. Modern-day slavery. Legalized trafficking. These are just a few of the terms community organizations and human rights groups use to describe the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) — and that’s before anything illegal takes place. The program has been heavily criticized for years, accused of offering employers an easy way to hire cheap, exploitable foreign labour. It’s also been singled out in many studies as the most common method by which labour trafficking occurs in Canada.

Established in 1973, the TFWP was originally designed to bring in highly specialized workers — academics, engineers and the like — to fill gaps in the labour market. But in 2002, faced with a booming economy and labour shortages, the federal government created a new stream in the program for “low-skilled” workers. That, say advocates, is when the problems really started.

“Nobody sat down and [thought] about: what is this going to do?” Yessy Byl, a lawyer and former temporary foreign worker advocate with the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), told the AFL in a 2001 interview. “Have we got a program in place that protects people who are coming with very tenuous rights?”

Tenuous, because work permits obtained through the program are highly restrictive, tying workers to a specific employer in a specific location. Some workers interpret that to mean they don’t have the right to quit. They do — in theory. But to get a new job in Canada, they would have to find another employer willing to file for a new work permit, a process that includes a Labour Market Impact Assessment and a price tag of a thousand dollars or more. For many, that just isn’t a realistic option, so they are stuck.

In practice, says Luciano, “their status in Canada is at the mercy of their employer.” If that employer turns out to be exploitative or otherwise abusive, the temporary foreign worker has little recourse — and the employer knows it. Experts say that creates a situation ripe for abuse, with unethical employers threatening to deport workers who complain, who don’t work “hard enough,” or who have the temerity to ask for things like medical attention when they’re sick or injured. Sometimes, employers make good on those threats.

“We’ve absolutely had calls like that,” says Yeager. “People that have been injured, and rather than being taken to the hospital, they’re taken to the airport, because it’s just easier to ‘deport’ them, for lack of a better word, than to get them medical treatment.”

Employers don’t actually have the right to deport anyone, but migrant workers don’t always realize that. They may have a limited command of English and be unfamiliar with Canadian laws. And when people don’t know their rights, says UFCWs Yeager, “they can be threatened with all sorts of things.”

By the same token, they can be lured with false promises. A job that doesn’t exist. Wages and benefits that never materialize. The promise of a path to permanent residency that was never possible. This sort of bait-and-switch is all too common, according to reports. And once the trap has been sprung, it can be very hard to escape.


Arjun’s story

Arjun* (not his real name) came to Canada in 2018 on a tourist visa, then decided to try to find work. After months of applying without success, he found a trucking company in Calgary that said they already had the paperwork in place for a temporary foreign worker. He was hired as a supervisor at a promised wage of $28.85 an hour.

After a few months, his employer told him there wasn’t enough work for him as a supervisor. Arjun hadn’t really been paid yet — just a few hundred dollars in cash here and there. If he wanted a steady paycheque, he was told, he’d have to drive a truck. Arjun protested that he wasn’t a truck driver. He says his employer told him, “‘It’s your choice. Otherwise, I cancel you and you get deported.’” Not only would he never work in Canada again, the employer told him, but being deported would forever be a black mark on his record. No country would take him after that. “So what can I do?” Arjun says. “I start driving a truck.” He worked 70 hours a week, without holidays or overtime pay. Instead of the original $28.85 an hour, he was now promised $2,000 a month.

Still, his wages came only sporadically. To keep the company books in order, the cheques were issued for the amount on his contract — $28.85 per hour — but Arjun was obliged to reimburse the employer most of that amount in cash, in accordance with his new, under-the-table salary. When he was paid at all, he received $1,900 a month. Arjun felt he had little choice but to keep working. He needed money to survive, and he hoped to become a permanent resident one day.

Then the employer told Arjun that he had to pay $11,000 in “taxes” or he wouldn’t give Arjun any more work and would cancel his permanent residency application. Otherwise, the employer told him, his application would be sabotaged. The threats and promises continued for months, until Arjun managed to cobble together $5,000 from his family in India. At that point he went to CCIS for advice on whether he should pay that amount as the first installment on the $11,000 in the taxes he believed he owed his employer.

Based on what he learned from CCIS, Arjun quit and filed a complaint with Service Canada. In response, he says, the employer — who was also born in India — sent his relatives to threaten Arjun’s family back home.

CCIS referred Arjun to ACT Alberta, who investigated the case and was able to get him an open work permit. At the time Avenue interviewed him, he was looking for a job — and still receiving threats from his former employer.

Arjun’s story is far from unique — The Globe and Mail recently published a lengthy investigative report on the trucking industry’s use of the TFWP, which alleged illegal payoffs in exchange for jobs, under-trained drivers being put on the roads, and repeated safety violations.


“The exploitation’s in the documentation.”

Critics say the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers isn’t a bug in the system but a feature, part of a model explicitly designed to take advantage of foreigners looking for a better life here. According to a 2011 UFCW report on the status of migrant workers, the temporary foreign worker program “reflects a targeted shift from a governmental model favouring entry of permanent residents, [who] would have equal access to legal rights and a path to citizenship, to migrant workers who are faced with precarious immigration status and more limited access to legal rights.” The inevitable consequence, says the report, is a perpetually vulnerable and exploited workforce. “Migrant workers are de facto second class workers subjected to employment conditions deemed unacceptable to most Canadians and working in constant fear of repatriation at the hands of unscrupulous employers if they assert basic rights.”

Put simply, says Michael Hughes of UFCW, “The exploitation’s in the documentation.”

Alberta has historically had a voracious appetite for temporary foreign workers — in 2014 the province hosted more than 110,000. According to ACT Alberta, this province had the highest number of temporary foreign workers of any province every year from 2008 to 2014. Though the numbers have fallen with the economic downturn in the province, industries like meat packing and agriculture still employ large numbers of temporary foreign workers.

That’s not a problem on its own, says Hughes. “We’re not against the temporary foreign worker. We’re against the temporary foreign worker program that exploits those workers.” And farm workers, according to the union, are among the most exploited of all.


Life on the farm

The camera threads its way through a warren of cramped rooms. Personal belongings are crammed into every available space. Mold from an unventilated shower spackles the ceiling. Nearby, someone warms tortillas on a hot plate.

Hughes and his colleagues at UFCW shot this video back in 2010, in a three-bedroom house in southern Alberta where farm workers from Mexico and Central America were being housed by their employer. According to Hughes, 18 adults were crammed into that space — and obliged to pay hundreds of dollars each in rent for the privilege. His organization shared the video with CBC, but the workers involved were too afraid to talk to reporters directly.

That fear, advocates say, is a big part of why so many cases go unreported. Traffickers use a combination of deceit and threats to convince migrants they could be deported at any time, or that they or their loved ones might come to harm. They use other methods of control, too — seizing passports, for example, or withholding bank cards. Some keep workers under constant surveillance, isolated from neighbours and the community.

Take the case of a farm in a small community outside of Medicine Hat. As Yeager and Hughes relate the story, it’s a textbook example of many of these control tactics.

It began at the recruitment stage, with the employer travelling personally to Central America to gather workers. She went to small Indigenous villages where people spoke only local languages, which ensured that her workers couldn’t communicate with each other, let alone the surrounding community. When the men arrived in Canada, their passports were seized. Then came the threats. If anyone complained, they would all be deported. Not only that, she would never hire anyone from their hometown again.

As Hughes puts it, “The entire livelihood of their town [back home] was reliant upon people putting up with exploitation.” The farm was even rumoured to have its own “police.” If workers wandered off without permission, they were rounded up and brought back, “as if they were stray cattle,” says Hughes. So keen was the employer to keep her workers isolated from the community that she served a church group offering them free haircuts and access to the Internet with a cease and desist letter. That’s what led the church group to call UFCW.

Isolation in rural areas is a big reason why farm workers are so vulnerable, Yeager says. “You don’t see them, and it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

Luciano of Migrante Alberta says much the same about domestic caregivers. Because they often live in their employers’ homes, they’re all but invisible, and it’s relatively easy for employers to control their movements, not to mention their finances and identity documents.

Sometimes, the only connections migrant workers have aside from their employer is the recruitment agency that brought them to Canada — and those agents might themselves be traffickers. In fact, experts say that recruitment agencies — also referred to as immigration consultants, employment brokers and employment agents — are usually the first link in the chain of labour trafficking. Sometimes, the process starts abroad; in other cases, local recruiters are involved. Often, it’s both. And some of those consultants allegedly make huge sums of money. One particularly notorious agency in Vancouver is alleged to have made $5 million a year from migrants looking for a better life in Canada.

So strong is this desire to immigrate that, in addition to labour exploitation, migrant workers are vulnerable to other scams and abuses designed to take advantage of them.


Edeline’s story

Edeline Royo’s greatest dream was to come to Canada. Originally from the Philipines, Royo had gone to Hong Kong in 2002 to do domestic work. When she heard a laundry service in Edmonton was looking for workers, she jumped at the chance. She paid a Hong Kong-based agent more than $7,000 in recruitment fees. Her paperwork came through, and in July 2014, she arrived in Edmonton as a temporary foreign worker, washing linens for hospitals and hotels.

Royo hoped to apply for permanent residency so she could bring her family over from the Philippines, but her employers told her they couldn’t nominate her. If she wanted to stay, she’d have to find a new job. She did an internet search for the Labour Market Impact Assessment, which temporary foreign workers need to get if they want to apply for another job, and an ad from a local recruitment agency popped up. “It says, we can help you … and we have so much jobs,” she says.

Royo contacted the agency and was reportedly told that instead of seeking work, she should apply as a student. “Once you become an international student,” she says they advised her, “you can get your family, you can get your children to study here.” She was told that after graduating she could apply for an open work permit and permanent residency. All it would cost her was $3,000 in fees to the recruiter and $18,000 in tuition, books and other expenses to the school. Royo had already sold her motorcycle and mortgaged her house to make her way to Canada, so she turned to her parents, who mortgaged their own home to raise the money.

She was halfway through her studies when she learned the truth. Some of her classmates, who had been recruited by the same agency, had started to graduate and were applying for the promised work permits. Those applications were being rejected. They weren’t eligible for permanent residency through the program. They never had been.

“All my world turned upside down,” Royo says. She had no money, no work permit, and was saddled with debt. “How can I pay? I cried. I really cried.”

She and her classmates are now suing Solomon College, and immigration consultant Amarjot Singh, accusing them of making “false representations.”

Employers and recruiters often work together to funnel migrants into exploitative situations, according to a recent report on human trafficking in Calgary. Sometimes, the network reaches all the way back to migrants’ countries of origin. Traffickers are often from the same ethnic community as those they exploit. And sometimes, they’re even closer than that.


Ella’s story

Ella was working as a nanny in Hong Kong when a relative reached out to her. The relative was already living in Canada and had a successful cleaning business in Calgary. Would Ella like to come and work for her?

“And I’m really happy,” Ella says, “because it’s my privilege to come to Canada.”

Ella says she was promised $1,000 a month — the “prevailing rate,” according to her relative. She’d have free room and board and be able to send money back home to the Philippines for her mother, who suffered from chronic health problems. Ella borrowed money to pay for her airfare and roughly $3,000 in recruitment fees through agencies based in Hong Kong and Canada. She arrived in Calgary in 2012.

Things started to go wrong straightaway. Ella and another new employee were taken to the bank to open joint accounts with their employer (Ella’s relative) — to allow direct deposit of their salaries, they were told. But their bank cards were taken by the employer, and their passports too. Six of them lived together in a house owned by the employer — they had to share bedrooms. But instead of the free room and board Ella had been promised, she was responsible for a share of the utilities and she had to pay “rent” in the form of five free hours of work every day. Ella says she knew it wasn’t fair, but she didn’t complain.

Every day, she and the other employees left the house at 8 a.m. and cleaned until 5 p.m. They went home for a brief supper break, then resumed cleaning from 6 to 11 p.m. (the later shift going toward “rent”). While Ella was earning the equivalent of about $2.50/hour, her employer was charging her labour out at $25/hour.

It was a lonely time. Ella wasn’t allowed to have a phone. She wasn’t even permitted to leave the house for church. And still, she says, she didn’t complain. “Because I know that it’s really hard to come to Canada, so I need to try my best to earn money.”

Jessica Juen of CCIS says she encounters that sort of resolve often. “They are just so focused on their intention to stay.” As with any abusive relationship, the dynamics are complicated, and victims may feel they have no choice but to remain with their abusers. They may have debts back home, or relatives in difficult circumstances, and feel that their only option is to endure.

Ella endured for more than three years, until her visa was set to expire. Her employer promised to renew her work permit — and even took $1,000 from Ella to pay for it — but the promised paperwork never arrived. Then came the final abuse.

“She asked me to go out from her house. She said, ‘You need to go out right now because the authorities, the police, they know that you are staying with me. So it’s better you will leave the house right now.’” Ella was turned out onto the street with only what she could carry. Terrified and alone, she turned to strangers at a CTrain station for help.

“Imagine that it’s my own blood,” she says. “How can she do that? I think she’s very greedy with money. Money is the devil.”

Ella managed to find help, thanks to CCIS and ACT Alberta. But her trials aren’t over. She still needs to find a new job, and, as she discovered, there are all too many predators waiting to take advantage of the vulnerable. Despite all the obstacles, Ella managed to find an employer in Calgary who was prepared to hire her. They went together to a local recruitment agency, where she says she paid $2,000 for help with her paperwork. She never heard from the recruitment agent again.


Supporting the survivors

Organizations like CCIS, Migrante and ACT do what they can to support victims of labour trafficking, but the cases they see almost certainly represent only a fraction of what’s out there. Many survivors are too afraid to come forward. Others may not think of themselves as being trafficked, especially if they’ve experienced exploitation before coming to Canada. Still others, like Ella and Arjun, will suffer in silence in the hope they will one day become permanent residents and provide better lives for their families. “You would be surprised how much they would endure,” says Juen of CCIS.

When they do come forward, it’s often to community organizations rather than law enforcement. Asked whether she went to the police with her case, Edeline Royo’s response is typical: “How can I go to the police? The police can easily kick me. If I go to the police, [they would say] ‘You are not a permanent resident. You don’t have any status here. You look like an alien. What’s your right to complain?’ They will easily kick me out of the country.” Other interviewees expressed similar worries and doubts about whether law enforcement would be relevant or helpful in their cases.

Perhaps tellingly, despite a concerted effort by Avenue over a period of several months to speak with representatives of the Calgary Police Service and the RCMP (the latter having the clearer mandate with regard to labour trafficking), no one was made available for an interview.

Even when authorities do manage to identify traffickers, prosecution is notoriously difficult. As of 2018, there has only been one labour-trafficking conviction in Canada. Here in Alberta, while labour-trafficking charges have been laid a handful of times, none has resulted in a conviction, as such, though there have been instances where cases of labour-trafficking have resulted in convictions for other offenses, with the offenders receiving jail sentences.

Experts point to the vague wording of the criminal code and the tendency of the justice system to interpret “coercion” very narrowly, in a way that requires the victim to fear for his or her physical safety. Absent the threat of physical violence, prosecutors may hesitate to lay human trafficking charges even in cases of extreme exploitation, preferring instead to rely on watered-down charges in order to secure a conviction.

The criminal justice response aside, what’s really needed, advocates say, is better protections for migrant workers. Here, at least, there are signs the federal government is paying attention. Following years of criticism, it has progressively made a number of changes to the TFWP designed to curb abuses under the program. In 2018, it announced it would set aside $33.19 million a year to fund surprise inspections of employers using the TFWP, and another $3.4 million to establish a pilot network of support organizations to assist in cases of potential abuse. Most recently, in June 2019, it announced measures to allow migrant workers who are in an abusive job situation to apply for an open work permit.

It’s too soon to say how effective these measures will be, especially if they aren’t widely known among the people who need them most — namely, foreign workers themselves. But there is, perhaps, reason to hope that migrant workers will be a little less vulnerable in the future. In the meantime, community organizations will continue to work with what few resources they have to increase awareness, and to support survivors like Arjun, Edeline and Ella.


If you suspect trafficking activity, you can contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS) to report an anonymous tip, or you can call the 24-hour confidential Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010.

You can also call your local law enforcement or RCMP office. For referrals, information, advice and coordination of services, call ACT Alberta at 780-218-5815 (for Edmonton and Northern Alberta) and 587-585-5236 (for Calgary and Southern Alberta). It is also possible to make an anonymous tip to Employment Standards, a department of the Government of Alberta.

Do not try to intervene directly in suspected cases of trafficking. Traffickers can be dangerous, and intervention may put you and the victim at risk or jeopardize the integrity of an ongoing investigation.


*All details in this story, including those provided by named and unnamed sources, have been confirmed according to Avenue’s fact-checking procedures.

Learn more about the people and organizations moving Calgary forward with Avenue's Innovation Newsletter.

This article appears in the November 2019 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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