The first years of the 2000s were marked by a rapid growth in the number of migrant workers coming to Canada. In response to demands from employer groups, the federal government’s expansion of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to lower-skill occupations led to significant employer interest in using temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to address their labour market needs. The number of TFWs in Canada more than quadrupled in 12 years to just under 400,000. Alberta, with its super-charged economy at the time, was the most active province in recruiting migrant workers. At the peak, 77,000 migrant workers lived in Alberta, making up 3% of the province’s workforce.
A series of policy changes by the federal government combined with an economic downturn in Alberta in 2015 led over the past five years to tens of thousands of migrant workers—many of whom had been living in the province for many years—having their work permits expire with no prospect of renewal. When faced with the situation of losing status, migrant workers are faced with a choice. Many choose to return home with the hope of possibly returning one day. Others choose to stay in Canada despite not having a valid work permit. Very little is known about who the workers that choose to stay are, how many there are, and what their life is like.
This report examines the lives of undocumented migrant workers living in Alberta. It discusses the results of a research study of 32 undocumented workers living in northern Alberta. It outlines the circumstances that led to their loss of status and describes their work and living conditions. It also explores their reasons for staying and their hopes for the future.
The study finds that migrant workers face significant challenges when coming to Canada, even with valid permits. Many pay large fees to recruiters, sometimes over $10,000. When they arrive, many experience exploitation and racism at the hands of employers and their “legal” status is frequently at risk.
The most common reason for losing status is that they did not have employment at the time of expiry, and thus were not eligible for a new permit. Others fell into undocumented status because their employer failed to get a new approval to employ temporary foreign workers. Some workers knew months in advance their status would run out, but for others it came as a surprise due to an unexpected turn of events.
The overarching reason why these workers choose to stay in Alberta without status is a commitment to support their family as best they can. Some saw few economic opportunities back at home, while for others Canada represented the best place to earn income to send home to their families.
Finally, many of the workers had children who were born in Canada (and thus are Canadian citizens). For this group, staying in Canada was the only way their children could exercise their citizenship rights.
These migrant workers make every attempt they can to regain status, and have developed three broad strategies: obtaining a different type of visa; utilizing Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada processes for extending status; and applying for a permit under humanitarian grounds. Their attempts to regain status leave them vulnerable to immigration consultants, many of whom charge thousands of dollars to help them navigate these processes.
Working Without Status
Work becomes very precarious for undocumented migrant workers. Formal employment is basically closed off and the workers subsist through casual, informal, cash-based work found through community networks and connections. Common work included housecleaning, babysitting, cooking meals, and casual labour jobs. Given their vulnerable situation, working conditions were often difficult. Common complaints were not being payed, being shortchanged in pay, and unsafe working conditions.
Living Without Status
Undocumented workers have difficulty accessing basic services such as health care and education. Because they do not have a valid health care card, the workers report foregoing treatment for minor ailments. For major health issues that can’t be ignored, they are able to access care through emergency rooms, but are then faced with bills for thousands of dollars for that care. The workers also expressed fear that their children will be kicked out of school due to their lack of status, even if the child is a citizen. Income support, such as Employment Insurance and child benefits, were cut off when the workers became undocumented, even if they otherwise were eligible. Access to other services, such as banking, municipal services (library, recreation facilities), and obtaining identification cards or driver’s licenses is precarious.
The workers reported significant stress and negative health effects due to their lack of status. Many withdrew from community activities, most experienced stress due to financial difficulties, and all reported fear of being reported to authorities. This fear and stress led to weight loss, depression, lack of sleep, and overall worsened health.
Despite the hardships, the undocumented workers interviewed for the study retained a resilient hope that the future will turn out okay. They continued to believe they would build a better life for their families. They also expressed a sense of unfairness and injustice in their situation and shared a belief that things will get better for all migrant workers in the future.
The report makes 27 recommendations aimed at federal, provincial, and local governments. They are divided into two categories of action. Thirteen recommendations are aimed at immediate steps that can be taken to improve the lives of undocumented workers in Alberta. Fourteen recommendations focus on systemic changes that are required to reform Canada’s immigration and temporary migration systems to make them more fair and just for all.