Migrant workers or disguised slaves?

The conditions under which many migrant workers are employed have been the focus of much controversy.

Are migrant workers the new slaves? Evidence from Qatar and Canada would provide legitimate evidence to support the aforementioned claim to a certain extent, although there are many complexities that must be considered.

The Guardian Newspaper conducted an investigation into Nepalese migrant workers in the 2022 FIFA world cup preparations taking place in Qatar.

They argued, “dozens of Nepalese migrant labourers have died in Qatar in recent weeks and thousands more are enduring appalling labour abuses.”

During summer 2013, “Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery.”

Furthermore, the Guardian alleged “without official documentation, migrant workers are in effect reduced to the status of illegal aliens, often unable to leave their place of work without fear of arrest and are not entitled to any legal protection. Under the state-run kafala sponsorship system, workers are also unable to change jobs or leave the country without their sponsor company’s permission.”

The state-run kafala system basically connects workers with employers of a construction company. These employers may have several workers under their command. Moreover, these companies have contractors and subcontractors, which generates accountability issues.

Are Nepalese illegal aliens in Qatar different from temporal migrant workers in Canada?

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) as well as the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) conducted by the Federal government heavily relies on employers to provide secure, fair and healthy working environments.

The federal government specifies that “employers must always arrange and pay for the round-trip transportation (e.g. plane, train, boat, car, bus) of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) to the location of work in Canada and back to the TFW’s country of residence. A portion of these costs can be recovered through payroll deductions in all provinces, except in British Columbia.”

In terms of housing, “employers must provide TFWs with free suitable housing (except in British Columbia where a portion of these costs can be recovered through payroll deductions) either on-farm (e.g. bunkhouse) or off-site (e.g. commercial establishment).”

In terms of health and workplace safety, “employers must ensure that all TFWs are registered for provincial/territorial health insurance as soon as they become eligible.” These requirements clearly demonstrate the reliance on the employer to secure a safe and just working conditions for migrant workers.

SAWP is comparatively better rounded than TFWP in terms of expectations and regulations. For instance, SAWP has a more concrete connection with the migrant’s home country.

However, many have argued that the problem is not about the lack of regulation, but a deficit in proper enforcement.

In a CBC report written by writer Kazi Stastna, associate director of the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, Jenna Hennebry, contended that many of the problems identified with inadequate housing and unsafe working conditions have to do with the lack of coordinated enforcement.

Furthermore, Stastna argues the TFW program “gives employers much more leeway than SAWP in hiring agricultural workers from abroad.” Stastna also alleged that “one of the main differences between SAWP and the low-skill foreign worker program is the involvement of the countries supplying workers.

“The source countries are responsible for recruiting the workers and are signatories to the workers’ employment contracts. Source country consulates within Canada are supposed to act as contact points and advocates for workers in terms of ensuring the conditions of their contracts are upheld.” As a result, the TFW program is ambiguous and offers opportunities for fooling regulation.

The lack of enforcement has led to many accusations of exploitation by some employers. Is this exploitation the defining factor in characterizing these programs as recreating slavery conditions?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labour “as work or service exacted from a person under threat or penalty, which includes penal sanctions and the loss of rights and privileges, where the person has not offered him/herself voluntarily.”

This definition does not account for the complexities of modern forced labour and the motivations behind it. People may seem to voluntarily accept these jobs, but this neglects important factors behind their decision. The ILO recognizes that this definition is subject to change according to the spatial and temporal context.

The concept of forced labour does not completely equate with slavery. Slavery has specific ties with a colonial history, and the use of the term must be treated with caution and respect. Migrant labour conditions do not completely resemble those of the slavery process during colonialism.

However, many would argue the conditions under which some of these migrant workers live are evidence of a new kind of modern slavery.

In reviewing this definition, it can be argued that both Nepalese workers in Qatar and temporal workers in Canada have been working under threats or possible penalties. The problem stems from the fact that in many instances, these threats are not formally recognized. The migrant workers may not have concrete legal evidence to claim that they have been exploited. This is, in part, generated by the lack of efficient enforcement of the regulations.

For some migrants, the option to work in these places is considered far better than what they could find at home. However, this must not be used as a justification to allow exploitation.

One of the most famous examples is the boycott that led to the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh that employed children. Child labour is often seen as an atrocity by the Western world. However, for many of those children, working in the garment factory meant making enough money to go to school or to help their families.

It becomes an issue of agency versus structure. Many migrant workers believe that they would make a better living by taking these temporal contracts, and, in many cases, they do. However, we must ask: What are the structural factors that led to this situation? Why do they have to migrate in the first place?