Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Yes, labour trafficking & exploitation happens in the Sea to Sky

Analyzing the issue and where to go for help.
Yes, labour trafficking & exploitation happens in the Sea to Sky.

They are abuses most people likely think happen somewhere else, but labour trafficking and labour exploitation occur right here in the Sea to Sky, according to several experts in the field.

Information about these abuses and what legal help is available was shared on June 18 in a Migrant Workers’ Centre Zoom presentation: “Preventing and Responding to Labour Trafficking and Labour Exploitation.”

The presentation was put on by the Migrant Workers’ Centre to assist local settlement service providers such as the Whistler Welcome Centre and the Squamish Welcome Centre and Settlement Service.

“We often hear people saying,’Does this happen in the Sea to Sky?’ Yes, it is very real and there are many workers in the Sea to Sky region facing this every day,” said Hasrat Grewal Gill, settlement and outreach worker with the Squamish Welcome Centre and Settlement Service.

As of the 2016 census, 10 per cent of Whistler’s population and about four per cent of Squamish’s population were temporary foreign workers.

“But we also know that we have a drastic increase in [the] number of temporary foreign workers accessing our services in the last few years,” Gill said.

“Since the Sea to Sky region is home to tourism and hospitality industries, more temporary foreign workers are trying to stay permanently, [there’s] more on two- to three-year visas, and many businesses are relying more and more on temporary foreign workers to keep our businesses going—and in the meantime, employers are sponsoring in more people to answer the job gap.”


Defining a migrant worker

A migrant worker is anyone in Canada with precarious immigration status including any non-permanent resident who is working or wants to work.

“It can include international workers, temporary foreign workers, someone who is here on visitor status who is working or who wants to work; it could include someone without status,” said Juliana Dalley, a staff lawyer with the Migrant Workers’ Centre in Vancouver. The non-profit provides free legal assistance to migrant workers in B.C.

“Someone who is recruited to come to Canada from abroad with the promise of a job that is going to be paid [under] certain conditions, but when [the person] arrives in Canada ... finds out that some of these promises were not true,” Dalley explained.

Temporary foreign workers are here on work permits granted by the federal government under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Migrant workers are vulnerable to labour exploitation for several reasons, including that Canadian work permits are often tied to a particular employer. That makes it harder for those workers to change employers if they are being abused.

Migrants who come from countries experiencing political instability and who arrive in Canada to seek a better life are also vulnerable to being exploited.

Newcomers also may not know anyone in town and can face language and cultural barriers and may not be familiar with Canadian laws.

Some have also accumulated debt to get to Canada, so are motivated to work and not complain.

The stereotype of what human trafficking is doesn’t always match the reality, Dalley said.

“In our ideas, it might involve moving across borders, people in the back of a van—and in some cases, it can look like that,” she said, but labour trafficking cases can take other forms as well.

The Palermo Protocol, the internationally accepted definition of human trafficking, describes it as, “recruiting, transporting, transferring or receiving people by the means of the use of force, or the threat of the use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception or the abuse of power for the purposes of exploitation,” Dalley said.

An example could be a person recruited from Dubai, who signed an agreement to work at a Canadian hotel, full time for a legal wage. When the person arrives, however, the employer says the trip to Canada, and its associated costs, have to be reimbursed, with the amount owing typically docked from the worker’s pay, often then amounting to less than minimum wage.

The difference between labour exploitation and labour trafficking is coercion.

“The person feeling that their actions are constrained by external forces,” Dalley said.

“Even if there is no direct threat, there may be coercion and the feeling that their choices are constrained by systemic forces.”

Deportation is one example of a threat an employer can leverage over their employee if, say, they refuse to work overtime for free.

If the employer holds their passport or other ID, workers then can’t access services, in many cases.

“That enforces isolation on that person and makes them fearful,” Dalley said. “While it is illegal in Canada to charge workers a fee for finding them employment, in reality, many of our clients have been charged fees.

“These are usually paid overseas and for a variety of reasons, it is often very difficult to get any enforcement of that worker’s right.”

Canadian immigration law can complicate matters.

“If we have a caregiver who has a work permit to work as a caregiver, but the family she is working for says, ‘Come to work on our blueberry farm on Sundays,’ she is actually violating the terms of her work permit, and so Canada Border Services could go after her and seek her removal from Canada,” Dalley said.

That fear can keep workers trapped in exploitive situations.


Fraudulent recruitment fees

Gill said what the centre sees most are migrant workers charged large, fraudulent recruitment fees by the employers and immigration consultants.

“Of course not all, but some employers and immigration consultants work as a team. They ask for under the table fees,” she said, adding she has heard of newcomers who paid between $5,000 and $40,000.

Ideally, this process should not cost the worker more than the consultancy fee of around $1,500 to $2,000. These are mostly workers on employer-specific work permits, or prior international students who are now on post-grad work permit.

Local agencies also hear of workers who are underpaid, or whose wages are deducted unjustifiably; who are forced to work unpaid overtime, with no health or other benefits and no paid leave.


Whistler workers in the shadows

In Whistler, labour exploitation tends to occur most frequently in a number of service-oriented sectors, said Izumi Inoue, settlement worker for the Whistler Welcome Centre. Au pairs are a common target for exploitation, as well as jobs like spa attendants, massage therapists, and even kitchen workers.

“The babysitter, nannies, live-in caregivers, they are the ones I hear of quite often,” she said, adding that the often-private nature of the work live-in caregivers do makes the industry ripe for exploitation in certain cases.

“The employer, the family who hires them, most of them are very nice people and there are only very few who exploit workers … They’re usually the ones that say to workers, ‘OK, I’ll hire you as a nanny and caregiver, you just come with us and you’ll have your own private room and you look after my kids and do house chores three times a week.’ But often it’s not like that and they don’t have days off, they work overtime with no extra pay.”

Although Inoue knows exploitation is happening locally, getting a handle on how prevalent it truly is can be nearly impossible to determine given how vulnerable these foreign workers often are.

“Workers need to be informed, they need to know their rights,” she said. “I think that’s very important, but because of the language barriers and because it’s such a new country for them, a new society, they don’t even know their human rights here or any social norms here or where they need to go to ask for information or even to reach out for support. It’s really challenging.”

The Whistler Welcome Centre will see a handful of cases that would constitute labour exploitation reported to them in a given year, but even following up with support can be tricky.

“What we do is connect them [to the Migrant Workers’ Centre], but I normally don’t even get to do that because they’re so worried about giving me their name,” Inoue said. “It takes so much courage for them to reach out. If they reach out to us by a phone call or email, I think it might have taken them a year or two or three to finally get to that point.”

Complicating matters further is that often these vulnerable workers are left in the dark when it comes to their work permits, with recruiters promising to arrange a worker visa only to find they are on a tourist visa once they arrive. Workers’ personal ID and even passports are sometimes also held by the employer for “safekeeping,” preventing them from leaving a situation they hadn’t bargained for.

“I know a couple of cases where the passport and work permit has been taken from them. And it’s not, ‘Oh, I’m going to take it away from you!’ It’s more like, ‘I’ll keep it safe for you.’ It’s a very invisible, indirect [tactic], but it’s still a sort of threat or coercion of the workers, which  means they cannot even go get social support or services if something is going wrong,” Inoue relayed. “Those workers, they [often] don’t even know how long their work visa is approved for, so they could be working illegally without the proper work permit or that permit might already be expired. But they don’t know that.”

-By Brandon Barrett


The risks

Reporting abuse, can often put migrant workers at a higher risk, even when the abuse is clear, the panelists acknowledged.

“There are a lot of shortcomings [in] the Canadian legal system,” Dalley said.

Two laws that prohibit human trafficking that are often misunderstood, according to Dalley, are the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Criminal Code.

“These are criminal laws so people who are engaged in human trafficking can be prosecuted under these laws,” she said.

But since the laws were enacted, only one case in two decades has successfully resulted in a conviction that was not overturned on appeal.

“Canada is really falling behind other jurisdictions, such as the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand when it comes to the response of the criminal justice system,” she said.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act requires that there be a crossing of a border involved for it to be considered a crime.

“We know that is not always the case, some trafficking happens purely in Canada, whether it involves migrant workers already in Canada on a work permit who [are] induced to transfer to another employer, or cases that are purely domestic.”

The Criminal Code allows for prosecutors to charge domestic cases but the victim must have feared for their safety or for those they love.

So, unless there is a threat of physical harm, prosecution can’t be pursued. Thus, victims often have better success seeking civil redress.


Other measures to help

The Employment Standards Branch can help workers where rules are broken on the job.

The courts can help if an employment contract has been broken.

WorkSafeBC can also help if a worker has been forced to do unsafe work or they are terminated for raising a safety concern at the workplace or are injured on the job.

“We at Migrant Workers’ Centre, we work in all these different areas and can assist workers depending on what is appropriate,” Dalley said.

The centre can also help people who have experienced human rights complaints, for example, if they have been discriminated against trying to find housing.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of complaint,” said Jeanne Robert, a legal advocate with the centre. “Each complaint and each case is different.”

Some temporary, quick remedies for protection for victims of trafficking include obtaining a special Temporary Resident Permit (TRP), which gives the victim temporary immigration status in Canada for 180 days. This grants them open work permits—they don’t have to stay with one employer—and access to social assistance.

A second temporary option is an Open Work Permit for Vulnerable workers, which allows migrant workers experiencing abuse, or who are at risk of abuse, with a distinct means to leave their employer.

It is important workers speak with a lawyer to help them understand their options.

For victims to get permanent status, there are a couple of options to pursue.

They may be able to apply for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

“Often, there is a compelling argument that can be made that granting permanent residence in Canada is the only just thing to do in these circumstances,” Dalley said, acknowledging there can be a lengthy wait period to get a decision.

Other victims may meet the criteria for refugee protection, Dalley said.

Migrant workers should keep detailed records, including text messages, emails and the like, even if things are going well with an employer.

“Sometimes the situation can change, because we know processing can take time. Sometimes it takes… months. We don’t always remember everything so this can be very helpful,” said Robert.

For more on this issue or for help, reach out to the Whistler Welcome Centre at 604-698-5960 or

A version of this story originally appeared in The Squamish Chief on June 29.