Underground workers exploited, says coalition

By Elise Stolte

Matt worked 14 hours a day, 75 hours a week, he says, washing dishes, preparing food, running downstairs to get supplies. The restaurant owner promised Matt $5 an hour, but at the end of the week he said he could only afford $250, less than $3.50 an hour. Matt took the money. He needed the job and kept on working.

Matt is an international student at Carleton. His name has been changed because with only a student visa, he risks getting deported if caught working for an Ottawa business. For Matt this is a way to pay tuition.

Canada has created a hidden under-class of vulnerable and exploited workers, say members of a coalition advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

Status, a coalition comprised of labour, immigration, neighbourhood and religious organizations, estimates there are between 20,000 and 200,000 people living without official immigration status in Canada. The group is calling this a human rights issue because living without status denies people access to social services and forces them to work underground. Like Matt, they often work for much less than minimum wage and are vulnerable to exploitation.

Status wants the federal government to allow all non-status immigrants to apply for permanent residency. Amy Casipullai, who has been working with the coalition since 2002, denies this isn’t a case of queue jumping.

“We’re not talking about amnesty, we’re talking about a fair process,” she says. The government needs to deal with undocumented newcomers in a way that recognizes their different situations, and the fact that some of them have legitimate claims to stay in Canada, she adds.

People become non-status immigrants in several ways, Casipullai says. Many have failed refugee claims or expired visas and simply stay in Canada to avoid going home. Others are completely without record. They enter the country secretly, often as part of a human trafficking scheme.

Some people simply don’t know the rules and become illegal unintentionally, Casipullai says. For others, persecution or lack of employment means “going back is really not a choice. They are stuck in the country.”

Alew Bwolo is a settlement counsellor with the Catholic Immigration Centre. Having come from Sudan as a refugee seven years ago, he knows the process first-hand and sees a lot of suffering when immigrants begin to work illegally.

“They live in fear because they could be exposed anytime,” he says, adding that the government should go further to “really assess people who have been rejected and claim they don’t want to go back.”

He says many non-status immigrants work under the table as dishwashers in restaurants or with local cleaning companies, places that don’t have stringent conditions for employment.

Officially, the immigration centre does not serve immigrants without status. Since their funding comes through Citizenship and Immigration Canada, any records kept could be used to find and deport individuals. Counsellors refer people in need to shelters and community health clinics, which don’t require documentation. Bwolo says failed refugee claimants have proved they can find jobs and should be allowed to apply from within the country as skilled workers.

Casipullai stressed the contribution immigrants are already making. “If the government of Canada were to identify, find and remove all the people without status in Canada,” she says, “it would make a significant dent in our economy and a huge impact on our communities.”

Casipullai says she is encouraged by increasing interest on Parliament Hill. A caucus committee on the issue of undocumented work is expected to produce recommendations within months.

As for Matt, he quit working underground to focus on school but plans to go back during the holidays. His advice to anyone working underground: choose a safe location. “If a major accident takes place, God knows what would happen,” he says.