Sarah James planned to jump from her sister’s sixth-floor balcony in the late winter of 2020. She changed her mind when she considered the problems her suicide might cause her sister. Better to be hit by a subway train, James reasoned. In the years that followed, she would stand on station platforms and wait for a train to jump in front of. Each time, something stopped her. “Somebody is pushing me back,” she said. “Maybe that is God.”

The stress of her life as a temporary foreign worker, and the pain of being away from her family in India, had broken James (her name has been changed). She’d endured nearly two nightmarish years as a caregiver for an elderly couple in Etobicoke. The wife she cared for refused to allow James to live in the condo. James woke up at five each morning to catch the bus from her sister’s apartment in Scarborough to Etobicoke—a three-hour journey. The wife insisted James clean the condo with bleach, filling the house with chlorine fumes. She wouldn’t provide her with food or let James cook for herself. Instead of eating, James told me, she often drank Canada Dry. The carbonation made her belly feel full.

When the husband died in the summer of 2021, James had to find a new employer. The following spring, she was hired as a live-in caregiver in Mississauga for a woman with dementia. But this job was no better than the first. The ailing woman’s daughter and son-in-law, James’s employers, ­barely provided enough food for their mother, and James would have to stretch out ­provisions. She was also given a paltry $100 a month for her own groceries. James received one ragged bedsheet and had to pay to use the condo’s shared washing machines and for her own detergent.

According to James’s contract, she would be paid for six hours a day, five days a week. But nobody was hired to relieve her, and her client’s dementia meant she couldn’t be left alone. James’s responsibilities never really ended. The woman would either climb out or fall from her bed nearly every night, and James, exhausted, would coax her back to sleep. She figures she tended to the woman for more than twelve hours every day but was never paid for more than six.

James’s employers designated Tuesdays and Thursdays as her days off. These were hardly holidays. The woman’s daughter would come to the condo at around eleven in the morning to relieve James, and James had to return by six in the evening. So her days off lasted only about seven hours. James would sometimes go to her sister’s place, but this required four bus transfers. Usually, though, she’d stay nearby. James would wander about the mall alone until six or pray at the local church.

She had few good options. Like the majority of temporary foreign workers in Canada, hired to fill short-term labour and skill shortages, she had been issued an employer-specific work permit—one that tied her to a particular company. If she quit or was fired, she’d lose her legal status and risk deportation.

A case worker with a community organization urged James to apply for an open work permit for vulnerable workers—workers who experience or are at risk of experiencing abuse. Such a permit would allow her to sever ties with her employer and find another boss without jeopardizing her immigration status. Together they prepared a letter outlining the details of her employment and what she endured. James included a copy of her original contract, her pay stubs, and a ledger of the hours she actually worked.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the government body responsible for these requests, denied James’s claim. The work permit application James had sent in almost a year earlier had yet to be processed. Without it, she was ineligible for the open permit. She tried again, this time with a support letter from her sister’s member of Parliament. She was rejected again, for the same reason. The case worker set up a conference call with an immigration officer, who asked to speak to James directly. She was asked if the employers had physically assaulted her. They hadn’t, but her unpaid wages and excessive work hours qualified as financial abuse. “She feels pity on me,” James said of the officer.

James received the open permit in December 2022 and celebrated the New Year by giving her bosses notice.

By the time I met James, I’d spent two years researching a book about migrant workers in Canada and speaking to them about their harrowing experiences with employer-specific work permits—also called closed permits. Two women from Guatemala told me about the verbal abuse and harsh work conditions they faced on a BC blueberry farm. I met with a farm worker who was terminated for complaining about unsafe living conditions after one of his co-workers died of COVID-19. An Ontario employer hired a crew of Filipino workers to work in a bakery but forced them to prune trees on his farm. When they complained about this and the harassment they faced from their non-migrant co-workers, he fired them.

Migrant worker advocates have long criticized the way closed permits trap workers with exploitative bosses. In a 2016 report on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, a House of Commons standing committee advised eliminating the employer-specific system altogether. Instead, in June 2019, IRCC implemented open work permits for vulnerable workers. They predicted around 500 annual applications. By the end of 2019, according to data obtained by the Migrant Workers Centre in Vancouver, the ministry had already received 567. Almost twice as many workers applied in 2020. In 2023, more than 1,300 workers were given permits. As of last November, around 4,000 open work permits have been granted since the program’s inception—a number that reveals the vulnerability of Canada’s migrant labour force.

The open permit program has attracted scrutiny and skeptics. Researchers from the Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers and the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law published a study in 2022 examining the program’s impact on workers. Their article, titled “Band-Aid on a Bullet Wound,” included interviews with ten participants from British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario. The participants included representatives from legal clinics, workers’ rights organizations, and a union that provides support to migrant workers. Between them, they had assisted or intervened in nearly 200 applications for open work permits.

Bélanger believes the government launched the vulnerable worker program knowing it would do little to help.

The article revealed multiple problems. For example, workers who apply fear reprisals if their employers find out. Many applicants require legal support and translation services to prepare their applications, but such services are not always accessible. Immigration officers might not recognize workers’ experiences as abuse at all, even with clear violations of provincial employment and health and safety laws. Workers might lack computer access, or transportation from their isolated farms, to complete the applications. To qualify, applicants must outline the nature of the abuse they’re experiencing, or risk experiencing, and gather enough evidence to satisfy immigration officials. This can be difficult—workers may not know they need to collect proof, witnesses to abuse may be scarce, and psychological harassment doesn’t usually leave a paper trail.

Recounting their experience to program officers causes many workers profound distress. These officers were hardly equipped for the job. According to Danièle Bélanger, the Canada research chair in global migration processes at Université Laval, those tasked with assessing applications appeared to be mostly former visa officers, “so initially they weren’t trained to interview people who had experienced trauma or abuse.” The officers seemed focused on identifying fraud, not exploitation. They had more of a border control mentality. In the end, the government approved only about half of the workers who applied.

Perhaps the biggest flaw with the open permit program relates to its narrow focus. By defining vulnerability only in terms of the personal experiences of an individual worker at a specific workplace, the policy ignores the vulnerability imposed on workers by the TFW system itself. The policy doesn’t address the fact that the whole machine is broken.

Mac Danly Trinidad’s manager accused him of “playing games” after a metal bar in a Leamington, Ontario, greenhouse struck him on the forehead and left him too dizzy to work for days. (He had no safety helmet, only a hairnet.) His manager abruptly fired him.

Trinidad and his lawyer applied for an open permit, gathering all the evidence he had, including text messages from his manager and supervisor, records of his visits to a clinic, and a sworn affidavit of the incident. Trinidad thought of his family back in the Philippines, especially his teenaged daughter, who were relying on his support from Canada. “I experienced depression. You try your best for your company. You work hard. Then something happens and they decide like that. I felt so very sad that time. But I don’t want to go back home.”

The existence of open permits is a tacit admission by the government that exploitation plagues our temporary foreign worker program.

Trinidad was approved a week later and quickly found work at a New Brunswick–based food processor with a plant in Wheatley, Ontario. But Trinidad fears that his new employers might have balked if they learned he’d received his work permit as a vulnerable worker. The designation can become a red flag, a sign the worker may be difficult to manage, and thus a risky hire, even when the opposite is true. So while the open permit allows the holder to apply almost anywhere, it can also label them as a troublemaker.

The open permit program also fails to support successful applicants in the months that follow. Some workers connect with worker networks or community organizations that support them. “But some people get kind of lost,” says Bélanger. These lost workers end up as easy marks. Bélanger knows of a worker in Quebec who received an open work permit and was immediately set upon by someone who offered the worker a job. “The worker trusted this person,” explains Bélanger, “and didn’t realize he was actually hired under the table. Then, gradually, things got worse.” Without follow-up assistance, vulnerable workers can emerge from the program no less traumatized than before.

Like with most holders of open work permits, Trinidad’s permit expired after a year. And the permits can rarely be renewed. That means workers may spend the first few months of the permit trying to find a job, leaving them precious little time for actual paid work. Luckily, Trinidad’s new employers liked him and applied for a Labour Market Impact Assessment, which, if granted, would allow them to rehire Trinidad on a closed work permit. However, their application was unsuccessful, and Trinidad had to leave the job when his open work permit expired a year later.

And this points to yet another flaw of the program. Once these open permits expire, workers return to the very employer-specific system they’d enjoyed a reprieve from. One of the participants in the “Band-Aid” study recalled a client who had been sexually assaulted by her employer. The idea of going back on a closed work permit horrified her. She’d experienced, first hand, the stranglehold exploitative employers have over workers. Bélanger believes the government launched the vulnerable worker program knowing it would do little to address these asymmetric power dynamics. Indeed, she suggests that’s one reason IRCC anticipated so few applications.

People “who come here as temporary workers want to be permanent,” Trinidad said. “But there is no choice to be permanent.” Few pathways to permanent residency, or PR, exist for temporary foreign workers in what Canada deems “low-skilled” jobs like Trinidad’s. In June 2019, the government launched two pilot programs allowing a limited number of caregivers to apply for PR. Another pilot program, which began in May 2020—and was extended last year to May 2025—will allow up to 2,750 workers in the agri-food sector per year to do the same. But seasonal staff are not eligible, and for reasons that are unclear, hours earned under an open permit won’t count as work experience. Provinces also have their own provincial nominee programs for granting PR. Most migrant workers in “low-skilled” roles, though, languish in the limbo of being permanently temporary. The vulnerable worker program does nothing to address this either.

The next best thing to being a permanent resident might be to work alongside them. “There are a lot of citizens working there,” Trinidad said of the food processing plant. “And permanent residents. They work for many years.” He reasoned that if the job “is not good, they won’t stay there.” Trinidad’s comment exposed something troubling. In certain situations, one of the more effective protections against exploitation and abuse isn’t a vulnerable worker program and a short-lived open permit; it is sharing a workplace with non-migrants whom their employer cannot exploit and abuse as easily. The rights of their Canadian co-workers act as a force field for workers who have few rights of their own.

Meanwhile, the bad bosses carry on. While the vulnerable worker program might provide migrants an escape from abuse, the program metes out scant punishment to the abusers themselves. According to an instructional video on the open work permit, IRCC intends to investigate the former employers of all approved applicants. “Perhaps those investigations are happening,” said Amanda Aziz, staff lawyer at the Migrant Workers Centre, “but we certainly have not seen a lot of consequences.”

So what would deter employers from exploiting their workers? Migrant allies have long campaigned the government to ensure permanent residency status to all migrant workers upon arrival. This would give migrants the same workplace protections and freedoms Canadian workers take for granted. Permanent residency also allows workers to bring their families to Canada, enabling the sort of reunion with her daughters James yearns for. As an interim measure, however, advocates demand the government offer open permits to all migrant workers, vulnerable or not. This would prevent workers from being bound to terrible bosses—and, ideally, compel bosses to be less terrible.

One recent sign suggests the government might be inching in that direction. In November 2023, Marc Miller, the minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship, told a Commons standing committee the government is considering more flexible permits that allow workers to switch jobs within the same sector or geographical area. However, Miller also said he didn’t feel the government should phase out closed work permits entirely. “Whether a more open or regional form of permit is desirable is something I’m glad to look at,” he said. “But I don’t think this signals the end of closed work permits.”

This will please employers who fear staff will flee for better working conditions. “If we’re only going to be able to attract workers to industries and sectors by tying them to their employers,” Aziz said, “doesn’t that mean there is something wrong with that employer?” Instead of striving to create an environment where their employees would actually want to work, some employers want conditions that keep their workers in bondage.

It’s hard to avoid seeing the vulnerable worker program as an affront to the principle of free labour: that a worker should be able to change jobs without requiring approval from a third party. Leaving a job shouldn’t be contingent on convincing an official sitting behind a government desk somewhere that you’ve been sufficiently abused. Canada’s temporary migrant worker system, though, is predicated on imposing conditions on foreigners that we’d never accept ourselves.

The existence of open permits is a tacit admission by the Canadian government that exploitation plagues our temporary foreign worker program. But the program does little to prevent those abuses, compensate those who suffer them, or punish those who inflict them. Nor does the program inoculate a worker from the system’s casual cruelties. I met Cassandra Cordero at her home in Leamington. After graduating with an agriculture degree in the Philippines, she applied for a greenhouse job in Canada. She was treated poorly. In addition to conflicts with her employer over hours, Cordero said, she faced sexual harassment from her co-workers. When the abuse became intolerable, she successfully applied for an open work permit as a vulnerable foreign worker.

Armed with her new permit, Cordero joined a production line at a food processing plant in Leamington. She enjoyed the conditions and felt encouraged to come out as a transgender woman. She even wore a dress to the company Christmas party. “It’s like I was Cinderella,” she said. “I think it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

Her happiness was short-lived. In January 2022, doctors in the Philippines diagnosed Cordero’s mother, Zenaida, with terminal lung cancer. Cordero wanted to be at her bedside when she passed away. Cordero’s open work permit had expired, however. If she left Canada, she wouldn’t be able to come back. Cordero wrote a letter to the prime minister, which was then forwarded to an immigration officer, pleading for permission to travel to the Philippines and return. She was refused.

Cordero, heartbroken, decided to abandon her “Canadian dream” and fly overseas to be with Zenaida. “I wanted to give this up so I can see her and take care of her for the last day,” she said. But her siblings convinced her to stay in Canada for the sake of the family’s future. They said their mother would understand and forgive her absence. Cordero stayed behind. Her mother died without her. 

Marcello Di Cintio
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of five books, including Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers (2021), which was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year.
Mary Kirkpatrick
Mary Kirkpatrick is a Montreal-based illustrator. Her illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Vox.