A Montreal-based workers' rights group has filed an application for a class-action lawsuit in Quebec Superior Court Thursday to ban closed work permits, which bind foreign workers to a specific employer.
The permit goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, says the Association for the Rights of Household and Farm Workers (DTMF).
The DTMF is calling for this type of work permit to be recognized as unconstitutional, since it places workers in a vulnerable position while they are dependent on their employer and more likely to be mistreated.
The Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) support the association's initiative.
"Even if they have rights on paper, there is always the fear of [workers] being sent back to their country. There are always threats from employers. They are afraid of reprisals," said CSN vice-president Katia Lelièvre during a news conference in front of the Montreal courthouse, Friday morning.
She added that the union represents thousands of immigrant workers, many of whom have temporary status, and that the CSN is aware of issues linked to closed permits.
On Sept. 6, the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, said following a two-week visit to Canada that the closed work permit system makes foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation, because they can't report abuse suffered without fear of being deported.
Lelièvre echoed Obokata's comments, saying that it's embarrassing for Canada to consider lecturing countries like China on human rights, "when we ourselves are not capable of respecting Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that all human beings are born free and equal."
"For us, people must be free to choose their employer," she said. "No Quebecer has to prove that they are vulnerable in their workplace to be able to change jobs, and that is what they [foreign workers] must do," she said.
The application for a class-action lawsuit also requests compensation for workers who suffered harm while restricted by a closed work permit.
"The award of damages is appropriate and just, in particular to compensate for the harm suffered by migrant workers linked to an employer, to assert their rights guaranteed by the Charter and to deter the Government of Canada from violating them in the future," the document reads.