Press releases Special Procedures
Canada: Anchor the fight against contemporary forms of slavery in human rights, a UN expert urges
06 September 2023
OTTAWA (6 September 2023) – Canada’s temporary foreign worker programmes are a breeding ground for contemporary forms of slavery, a UN expert said today, urging the country to do more to protect workers and offer a clear pathway to permanent residency for all migrants.
“I am deeply disturbed by the accounts of exploitation and abuse shared with me by migrant workers,” said Tomoya Obokata, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, in a statement at the end of a 14-day visit to the country.
“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.
“So-called ‘temporary’ foreign workers address a permanent need on the labour market and have valuable skills that are critical to the Canadian economy,” the Special Rapporteur said.
He urged Canadian authorities to regularise the status of foreign migrant workers, and end the closed work permit system. “Canada must offer a clear pathway to permanent residency for all migrants, to prevent the recurrence of abuses,” the UN expert said.
Obokata acknowledged that Canada had enacted several policies in recent years to encourage Canadian businesses to protect human rights.
“This includes the establishment of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), the revision of Canada’s Responsible Business Conduct Strategy and Code of Conduct for Procurement to reduce the risk of forced and child labour, and the adoption of transparency legislation that requires companies to report on measures to address child and forced labour in supply chains,” Obokata said.
“While these are important steps, clear monitoring frameworks need to be in place, and Canada must do more to implement these measures to address modern slavery, by protecting workers’ rights and tackling discrimination that enables exploitation,” the expert said.
“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.
During his visit, Obokata observed that the communities most vulnerable to modern enslavement and exploitation were those already subject to structural discrimination and violence, including migrants with precarious status, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities, persons of African descent, formerly incarcerated persons, and the homeless.
He drew links between Canada’s colonial legacy and the disproportionate impact of contemporary forms of slavery on Indigenous Peoples, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, who reported that law enforcement is often unresponsive to these concerns.
“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,” Obokata said.
The Special Rapporteur said they were reportedly targeted by traffickers when traveling to seek employment or services.
Canada’s domestic frameworks to address contemporary forms of slavery had been updated in recent years, but there was a lack of trauma-informed personnel and human rights-based approaches in law enforcement and the court system, the expert said. Obokata also observed insufficient consultation of survivors in policymaking, and inadequate protections and remedy for victims and survivors.
“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,” the expert said.
“Foreign victims are not sufficiently supported to remain in Canada and gain permanent residency, yet are often coerced into cooperating with law enforcement to maintain status,” he said.
“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.”
Mr. Tomoya Obokata was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery in March 2020. Mr. Obokata is a Japanese scholar of international law and human rights, specialising in transnational organised crime, human trafficking and modern slavery. He currently serves as Professor of International Human Rights Law at York Law School, and previously taught at Keele University, Queen's University Belfast and Dundee University (all in the United Kingdom Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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