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UN expert sounds alarm over ‘contemporary forms of slavery’ in Canada

Lake Minnewanka in Canada.
© Unsplash/Marcelo Vaz
Lake Minnewanka in Canada.

UN expert sounds alarm over ‘contemporary forms of slavery’ in Canada

Human Rights

An independent UN human rights expert on Wednesday expressed concern over Canada's temporary foreign worker programmes, describing them as “a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery”.

Tomoya Obokata, the Human Rights Council-appointed Special Rapporteur on the global scourge of modern slavery issued his statement at the end of a 14-day visit.

He called on the Canadian Government to intensify its efforts to safeguard workers’ rights and offer a clear pathway to permanent residency for all migrants.

Migrant workers at risk

“I am deeply disturbed by the accounts of exploitation and abuse shared with me by migrant workers,” he said

“Employer-specific work permit regimes, including certain Temporary Foreign Worker Programmes, make migrant workers vulnerable to contemporary forms of slavery, as they cannot report abuses without fear of deportation,” Obokata said. 

He acknowledged recent policies enacted to promote human rights across the business sector such as the creation of a Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) and other codes of conduct.

But he emphasized the need to regularize the status of foreign migrant workers, citing their valuable skills the bring to the economy.

“I urge the Government to bring forward legislation requiring Canadian companies to implement mandatory human rights due diligence, and expand the independence, powers, and mandate of the CORE,” he said. 

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Trauma twice over

While visiting, Mr. Obokata noted that the communities at the highest risk of contemporary slavery and exploitation were those already experiencing structural discrimination and violence.

This included individuals with precarious migrant status, Indigenous Peoples, those with disabilities, individuals of African descent, former prisoners, and the homeless.

He drew a line between Canada's colonial history and the disproportionate effect of contemporary forms of slavery on Indigenous Peoples, such as First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, who have reported instances of unresponsiveness from law enforcement over the issue.

“I am extremely concerned by the extent to which Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people go missing or are murdered, often as a result of being trafficked for forced labour or sexual exploitation,” Mr. Obokata said. 

He said they were reportedly targeted by traffickers when traveling to seek employment or services. 

Legal challenges and solutions

Canada's efforts to address slavery within domestic frameworks have improved. However, the independent expert said he had witnessed a lack of trauma-informed personnel and human rights-centered approaches within law enforcement and the judicial system. 

“Victims and survivors are forced to relive their trauma in their interactions with law enforcement and the court systems, and the outcome of legal proceedings often fails to provide adequate compensation,” he said. 

He said there was not enough consultation with survivors over policymaking and insufficient protections and remedies for victims. 

“I am also seriously concerned about the misuse of anti-trafficking legislation to target sex workers, which seriously impacts their human rights,” said Obokata. “Full decriminalization of sex work is necessary to prevent further abuses.”

Special Rapporteurs and other UN experts are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organisation. They serve in their individual capacity and receive no salary for their work.