Tag Archives: Exploitation

Exploitation, abuse, health hazards rise for migrant workers during COVID-19, group says

A group representing migrant workers in Canada is demanding better protections after two men died from COVID-19, hundreds more have been infected and complaints mount over dangerous work and housing conditions.

A new report paints a grim snapshot of workers who fear for their health and livelihoods after arriving in Canada to perform work the federal government has described as vital to the country’s food supply.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change heard complaints from more than a thousand workers on a variety of issues, including a lack of access to protective equipment, crowded conditions that don’t allow physical distancing, poor access to proper food during quarantine and unfair gouging on wages and meal costs.

The group’s executive director, Syed Hussan, said dismal housing and working conditions have been reported for years, but during the pandemic, they’re even more dangerous.

“Two workers are already dead, hundreds are sick, at least two are in ICU. And we don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” he told CBC News.

Hussan said most migrant workers don’t report conditions out of fear of reprisal, or because they don’t have the ability to do so. They want the federal government to give them permanent resident status so they can assert their right to a safe workplace.

“If you leave a job right now, or you refuse unsafe work, you face termination, homelessness, deportation and you can’t come back in the future. Permanent residence status takes away those limitations on you so you can keep yourself safe,” Hussan said.

$ 50M to help cover costs

Each year about 60,000 foreign workers come to Canada.

In April, the federal government announced $ 50 million to help farmers and fish processors who are bringing in temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

Under that program, employers are eligible for up to $ 1,500 per foreign worker to help cover the costs of complying with a mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival in Canada.

Employers must provide accommodation for the employees during the self-isolation period and pay the workers during the 14-day period.

At the time, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the funds were to help employers carry out the “vital” work of feeding the nation while protecting the health and safety of Canadians.

“The men and women who work in our food supply chain are essential to ensuring Canadians have access to a variety of high quality food at a reasonable price. In many regions in the country the production of food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables, relies on the contribution of experienced temporary foreign workers right from planting season to harvest,” she said at the time.

A spokesperson for Agriculture Canada said If an employer is found to not have been compliant with requirements under the Quarantine Act or the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, they would no longer be eligible for the $ 1,500. If they have already received reimbursement, they are required to repay the funding.

‘Crisis from within a crisis’

The alliance will officially release its report, called “Unheeded Warnings: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers,” at a noon ET news conference today with foreign workers speaking out about their experiences.

Calling the heightened dangers “a crisis from within a crisis,” the report calls for immediate action to address the “fundamental discrimination and exploitation built into Canada’s temporary immigration programs.” 

“Until then, there will always be more abuses to expose, indignities to denounce and demands for change to be made,” it reads. 

The report says the workload for many foreign hires has intensified during COVID-19, and that some employers are forcing workers to go at “breakneck speed.”

“As fewer workers are coming in, or workers’ arrivals are delayed, migrant workers already here have seen dramatic work intensification: 128 workers reported working for weeks without a day off, being forced to work long hours, and suffering increased strains, injuries and sickness due to increased pace of work,” the report says.

As employment and labour laws often exclude migrant workers, there are no rights to minimum wage, overtime pay, hours of work, breaks, days off, or collective bargaining, the report states.

Farms are ‘rigorously’ inspected

Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, said he is not aware of any unsafe conditions or inappropriate pay issues described in the report. He said bunkhouses are “rigorously” inspected twice a year by local health units and are also subject to inspections by provincial and federal authorities.

“If there were problems, I’m sure they were corrected. But I haven’t seen, to my knowledge, any fines being levied against any grower for violating the new rules as far as housing is concerned.”

George said during the pandemic, challenges are not limited to foreign workers.

“It’s not just the migrant workers. It’s any workplace in Ontario that’s going to have challenges with outbreaks going forward this year until we have a vaccine. I think it’s just important that the employer as well as employees follow the best safety protocols in place and limit the spread of COVID-19.”

Workers cited in the report also alleged increased acts of racism from employers, local shops and some community members who treated them like they were “disease carriers.”

The report says 209 migrant workers reported increased intimidation, surveillance and threats from employers, “often under the guise of COVID-19 protocols.”

Reports of anti-Black racism

The report also noted a higher number of complaints from Caribbean workers, who are mostly Black men.

“Racism, and specifically anti-Black racism, underpins workers’ experience,” the report states.

Other complaints outlined in the report include:

  • Workers who could not physically distance during the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Canada.
  • Lack of access to health care and information.
  • Unfair wage and meal cost clawbacks.
  • Crowded housing conditions after quarantine without essential sanitization.
  • Lost income becaue of border closures and extended travel times.
  • Lack of ability to send remittances (payments) to family at home.

CBC News has not verified the complaints in the report.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan says the government must do more to protect foreign workers.

“We say we value them and we need them for our economy, and yes we do. But we also need to ensure that we follow on that when they come to Canada. They should be able to return home safe and sound,” she said.

NDP calls for pathway to residency

Kwan said the federal government must also offer a pathway to permanent resident status under the principle of “good enough to work, good enough to stay.”

Kwan also said the government needs to step up enforcement to make sure employers are treating workers safely and humanely.

Service Canada can carry out inspections, with or without notice, to verify and employer’s compliance with the program, including within the first 14 days of the temporary foreign worker’s arrival.

Between March 1 and May 29, there were 585 inspections, according to a spokesperson for Carla Qualtrough, the minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion.

Penalties for not complying with the new conditions include fines of up to a $ 1 million and bans on hiring foreign workers up to a permanent ban.

The government has not yet responded to a request for information on what penalties, if any, have been imposed to date.

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Congress Floats Spectre of Child Exploitation to Kill Legal Encryption

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A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill they claim is intended to crack down on the proliferation of child exploitation online. In reality, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT Act) is an attempt to destroy end-to-end encryption and force companies to create backdoors that allow law enforcement officials to access private and personal communications under much looser standards than currently exist.

The United States government has been transparent in its pursuit of this goal during both the Obama and Trump Administration. For years, the DOJ has argued that technology companies could create private backdoors for US law enforcement without making their products fundamentally insecure in the process. This is factually false — a product with a backdoor is definitionally less-secure than one without one, and there is no way to ensure with 100 percent certainty that the details of the backdoor will never leak online. Having completely failed to convince the security industry that it should become less secure, the US government has adopted a new tactic: Tie the anti-encryption push to efforts to end the distribution of child pornography.

How EARN IT Works

Currently, companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter enjoy what is known as Section 230 protection. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that companies are not legally responsible for the stated opinions of their users. If they were, it’s difficult to see how the modern internet could exist. Everything from YouTube videos to Tweets would have to be pre-screened by the services themselves. The sheer amount of content being created every second by billions of users worldwide makes this functionally impossible. The EFF calls Section 230 “The most important law protecting internet speech.” The reason Section 230 is a problem for law enforcement is that the DOJ can’t bring legal pressure to bear on companies that refuse to cooperate.

EARN IT is designed to dismantle Section 230 protection from companies that currently enjoy it. The law creates a 16-person committee that would be responsible for drafting a list of best practices for stopping the distribution of child pornography. Companies that refused to follow this list of recommendations would be stripped of their Section 230 protections and subject to unlimited liability for any lawsuits related to the distribution.

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We’ve already seen evidence of how this can play out at smaller scale. After FOSTA-SESTA removed Section 230 protection for any website found to be aiding/abetting sex trafficking, a number of websites shut down their Personals sections rather than risk being prosecuted. Whether you think FOSTA-SESTA was itself a good law or not, it set a clear precedent: Companies buckled under and removed potentially offending content rather than risk losing Section 230 protection.

If 11 or more members of this new committee declare that the best practices to fight child porn preclude the use of end-to-end encryption, companies could be forced to choose between securing user data and exposing themselves to unlimited liability in child abuse cases. This allows Section 230 to be effectively repealed without ever actually repealing it.

Who Sits on the Committee?

The 16-person committee is officially known as the National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention and would, according to Eric Goldberg, consist of:

The US Attorney General or his designee, who will chair the committee.
The Homeland Security Secretary (or designee)
FTC Chair (or designee)
2 law enforcement members
2 prosecutors
2 representatives from NGOs dedicated to victims of online child sexual exploitation.
2 technologists
2 representatives of large internet services with experience in child safety (30M+ users)
2 representatives of small internet services with experience in child safety (<10M users)
1 representative with “experience in consumer protection matters related to privacy and data security representing civil society or public interest organizations.”

Out of 16 positions, two are explicitly reserved for technologists and one for privacy. The four industry positions are explicitly reserved for those workers at online companies that work closely with law enforcement. Nine positions are reserved for the government, or for organizations that work closely with government law enforcement. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with working for/with government efforts to crack down on child pornography, but the viewpoints represented on this committee are overwhelmingly tilted to favor voices most likely to call for restricting end-to-end encryption. 11 votes would be required to change the rules, ensuring that the privacy advocate and technologists can be permanently silenced.

But You Don’t Have to Take My Word for It

Matthew Green, cryptographer and professor at Johns Hopkins: “It’s extremely difficult to believe that this bill stems from an honest consideration of the rights of child victims, and that this legislation is anything other than a direct attack on the use of end-to-end encryption.”

Eric Goldman:

Virtually all Internet services consider CSAM [Child Sexual Abuse Material] the most pernicious type of user-supplied content and already apply zero-tolerance policies. It’s laughable to imply that Internet services are blase about CSAM on their networks. Of course Internet services could do more to suppress awful content generally, but those steps aren’t specific to CSAM and are likely to affect wide swathes of legitimate UGC [User Generated Content].

In sum, in light of the anti-CSAM efforts already being deployed, exactly what new anti-CSAM steps will be motivated by the removal of Section 230 immunity? The EARN IT Act appears to be motivated more by other considerations, not actually helping combat CSAM or protecting CSAM victims.

Joe Mullin, EFF: “You shouldn’t need to get a pass from a commission of law enforcement agencies just to set up a website. That’s the type of system we might hear about under an authoritarian regime. Yet, in the name of protecting children, U.S. lawmakers might be about to set up such a system here. That’s what the EARN IT bill comes dangerously close to prescribing.”

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‘My name is Karly’: Sex trafficking victim joins police on front lines in battle against exploitation

Warning, this story contains graphic content that readers may find disturbing.

Karly Church, 31, escaped the dangerous world of domestic sex trafficking when a police officer found her in a hotel room, and her two traffickers were arrested.

Six years later, Church now works as a crisis intervention counsellor with Victim Services of Durham Region, east of Toronto. She also teams up with Durham Regional Police detectives in the field to help underage girls and young women caught up in the heinous crime.

“I want to instill hope,” Church says. “I want them to see that there is a way out, and there is the ability that they can reach any goal that they have for themselves. That you don’t have to be stuck, that there are people who care.”

Human trafficking is a fast-growing crime in Canada and one of the most difficult to beat.

According to Statistics Canada’s latest figures, reports of the “most serious violation” of laws around human trafficking soared from a couple of dozen across the country in 2010 to 340 in 2016.

StatsCan adds that, “human trafficking is difficult to measure, due in part to its hidden nature. While there has been an increase in the number of human trafficking incidents reported by police in recent years, human trafficking remains highly underreported.”

  • WATCH: The feature about police efforts to crack down on human trafficking, Tuesday Feb. 18 on The National at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch The National online on CBC Gem.

The majority of reported cases are in Ontario, and 93 per cent of the victims are female. Approximately 72 per cent of female trafficking victims are under the age of 25, and can be as young as 12 years old.

And the conditions police find victims in can be horrific.


Det. Dave Davies, with the Durham Regional Police Service Human Trafficking Unit, says girls and women trapped in the sex trade are often subject to horrendous treatment. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“There are incidents with girls getting waterboarded, eating their own feces, being brutally raped,” says Detective Dave Davies, who runs the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit.

“The hardest ones are the ones that are young — the young ones that have never had sex before and they lose their virginity to some John, or they end up getting pregnant. Those are real scenarios that we’ve dealt with.”

The Durham Regional Police are one of the first in Canada to work directly with a human trafficking survivor, and they say Church is their secret weapon. With six detectives attached to the Human Trafficking Unit, most of them undercover, the police have nicknamed her Number Seven.

“She’s a part of our team,” says Detective Davies.


Church also works with Victim Services of Durham Region. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The collaboration between the Durham Regional Police Unit and Victims Services of Durham Region is about building relationships and trust with the victims. Church and Davies say it’s working.

Since Church got involved, the number of local police investigations has doubled and so has the number of victims she is supporting. In 2018, Victim Services of Durham Region helped 120 human trafficking victims, and in 2019 that jumped to 240.

Building trust

On a recent afternoon, Church and the detectives combed through online sex ads looking for clues leading to underage girls.

On any given day there can be anywhere from 30 to 100 new ads posted just in their region.

“You can see 22, 19, 22, they’re all different ages. We’re looking for younger looking females right now,” Detective Davies says.

“They can kind of give us clues to where they are. So, like, Westney Road, 401, Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa. When it says ‘back in town,’ that means they were somewhere else,” he adds, a potential sign that they’re being trafficked.


Since Church started working with the Durham Regional Police Service Human Trafficking Unit, its number of investigations has doubled. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Karly helps out and gives her opinion. We work together and try and find somebody, and go talk to them.”

Undercover detectives set up fake “dates” to try and meet up with the women at nearby hotels to make sure they aren’t underage, and also that they aren’t being forced into sex.

Often Church joins the offsite operations.

Detective Dave Davies, who runs the Durham Regional Police Human Trafficking Unit, describes Karly Church’s important role with his team. 0:22

Having identified an ad that concerns the team, they all head out the door of police headquarters and meet at a nearby hotel, where the first date has been set up for the day.

These hotel operations can be dangerous. Often, the pimps are nearby in adjoining rooms or even in the room’s own bathroom, and sometimes they’re armed.

After the detectives establish the room number, they enter and make sure the person and the situation is safe. Church and Davies stay back until they get they get the okay to come in.


Karly Church and police visit a hotel room to talk to a woman involved in the sex trade. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)

Church then works to build trust with the women.

“I think immediately if somebody comes to your door and identifies as police, it’s intimidating,” Church says. “Just because a lot of times it’s like, ‘what’s  going to happen to me?’ And there’s a bit of a panic.”

This time the woman in the room has been told about Church and wants to talk to her.

Most of them do. The woman isn’t underage, but she takes Church’s contact information.

The police meet at a nearby parking lot for a debrief. Church is happy with the outcome:

Karly Church describes what defines success in her daily work with the police and victims of human trafficking. 0:21

Community outreach

Durham Region has a trafficking coalition consisting of community workers and organizations. They’re trying to raise awareness to help discourage the crime, and they also help victims find the support they may need for addiction, housing, a bus pass and even food.

Raising awareness includes school outreach and education. Church does public service announcements to spread the word about things such as signs to look for that may indicate someone is being trafficked. She also speaks to Grade 8 and 9 students.

“My name’s Karly, I’m actually a survivor of domestic sex trafficking. I had a pimp and he forced me to work in the sex trade,” Church tells a group of students.

Karly was lured in by human traffickers at a time when she had nowhere to go. She’d left home, then been kicked out of a detox centre. Another girl who’d also left the detox centre persuaded Karly to go with her to a house, where she met the traffickers who drew her into the sex trade.


Church tells a classroom how she was recruited by a human trafficker, and describes some of the signs they can watch for to avoid being manipulated by predators. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)

As the kids listen, she presents the facts on how it happened to her. She describes how traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, and can often disguise themselves as a boyfriend or someone who can be trusted.

“He is looking for someone who maybe is being bullied in school. He’s looking for someone who maybe doesn’t have that brand-name clothing or brand new iPhone,” says Church.

Karly’s presentation leaves the room silent.

What is most concerning is how many kids approach Church after her captivating presentations.

“In my experience, after every presentation I have ever done, someone has come up after and made a disclosure — either ‘this happened to me,’ or ‘I think this is happening to me,’ or ‘I know someone this is happening to.’ That’s in 36 schools,” says Church.


Besides her work with the police and outreach to schools, Church also helps women in Durham who have been trafficked and need support. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Kayla Yama is a clinical director of Victim Services for Durham Region, and coordinates the public presentations with Church.

She says public outreach helps reduce the stigma, encouraging people to speak up if they or someone they know is a target of sex trafficking.

Yama says there has been a “huge shift in terms of awareness” locally. She adds that it’s due largely to people “coming forward to Victim Services of Durham Region, coming forward to the community, coming forward to their parents — the bravery that it takes, it astounds me every day — and saying that this happened to me. It allows people not to overlook it and say this is something that couldn’t happen to my child.”

Back at police headquarters, Detective Davies says the program is a success, but his team wants to do more. He’s hopeful that in the near future the force can make that happen with some provincial funding. “It would help for sure.

“We have six detectives here. We have one Karly,” he says, adding that he’d like a “Number Eight” to join the team to help with Church’s growing workload.

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Exploitation in the fields: Sikh workers toil under gangmasters on Italian farms

When most people think of the Italian Mafia, cinematic clichés of gangsters fighting turf wars on the hardscrabble streets of blighted metropolises are apt to spring to mind.

What likely doesn’t is a lush expanse of Italian farmland lined with giant eucalyptus trees tended by a vast community of Sikh workers under the tight control of criminal organizations.

But an hour’s drive south of Rome in the province of Latina live and toil as many as 35,000 farm labourers from Punjab, most exploited, some enslaved, say labour unions and community leaders.

They say many arrive in Italy by paying a middleman as much as $ 20,000 for a legal visa before falling under the harsh control of an unofficial but widespread gangmaster system known in Italy as caporalato.

The UN special rapporteur on contemporary slavery, Urmila Bhoola, described the system as putting workers under extreme forms of coercion through sexual and physical violence and forced ingestion of performance-enhancing drugs.

“The caporalato system consists not only of labour brokers who supply irregular and regular migrants to farms, but it is also said to be underpinned by a network of criminal syndicates and Mafia groups who benefit from the exploitation in slavery-like conditions of migrant workers,” Bhoola wrote after visiting the area in late 2018.

Sikh workers pick vegetables for up to 14 hours a day. (Megan Williams/CBC)

The threat of violence is so strong among these fields of tomatoes, zucchini and lettuce, dilapidated greenhouses and shacks that few workers risk talking about the conditions they work under.

Gurmukh Singh, the local grocer and community organizer, is an exception.

Singh lived under the caporalato system for 14 years before saving enough money to open his small shop in Borgo Hermada, an enclave of wide roads and neglected two-storey homes just inland from the tourist town of Terracina.

Offering advice

It now serves as an informal community centre, with Sikhs dropping by for help translating a contract or advice on how to deal with a boss who threatens to take away a work permit or who deducts a week’s pay if a worker misses half a day to renew a residency permit.

“We do everything in this area from planting to harvesting,” says Singh, standing near a stack of honey-soaked Punjabi sweets as his wife tends the cash register. Some 30 per cent of the workers here are women.

“For Sikhs, the Earth is the mother,” says Singh.“But we are punished by the bosses if we ask to be treated properly.”

Gurmukh Singh runs a small grocery store in Borgo Hermada after working for 14 years under the caporali system. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Singh says for many, conditions have only slightly improved since what he experienced at age 17, some 25 years ago.

“They paid us $ 2 or $ 3 an hour. When we said we needed $ 5, plus boots and gloves, they threatened to take our documents away and they even beat us. I worked so hard I had to tie my legs together when I went to sleep so they wouldn’t jump.”

Singh Manjit stops by to pick up a few items before he heads to the fields. For the past 16 years, he’s tended everything from zucchinis and radishes to eggplants and melons for just $ 6 an hour.

“I suffer from backaches, but I don’t do drugs like a lot of the younger men do,” says Manjit.

Grocery store owner Gurmukh Singh chats with farm worker Singh Manjit. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Addiction to opium, opioids, heroin and anti-spastic drugs among the Sikh workers has mushroomed in recent years, according to Sikhs, rights workers and doctors. They say many workers chew dried poppy pods, which contain low levels of morphine and codeine that can lead to addiction.

Marching in protest

To manage excruciating back pain after hours of picking watermelons weighing as much as 20 kilograms, some workers slip opium into their morning tea, with gangmasters, or caporali, forcing drug use as well, say Sikh workers.

In 2016, Singh, with the help of sociologist and fellow activist Marco Omizzolo, organized the first Sikh farm workers strike. Despite threats from bosses and fear of reprisal, 4,000 Sikhs marched through the provincial capital of Latina to protest pay and conditions.

Last September, they organized another protest where representatives from Italy’s largest workers’ unions joined 1,500 Sikhs.

Despite their efforts, workers continue to toil 6½ days a week, up to 14 hours a day. Italian law dictates that agricultural workers can work no more than six hours a day at $ 12 an hour.

Sikh workers toil in fields in Italy. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Omizzolo says there have been more than a dozen suicides among Sikh workers in the last four years and that under pressure from bosses, workers often don’t report workplace accidents or, in a case earlier this year, misreport it as a “car accident.”

“This area is a gigantic money-producing machine and nobody wants to stop the exploitation because the whole agro-economy it’s based on would collapse,” says Omizzolo, who grew up in the area.

Omizzolo took up the cause of Sikh workers after growing curious about the Sikhs he spotted pedalling along the country roads at dawn and dusk, their figures bent over in the distant fields during the long days.

Learning about their lives

He decided to work alongside them for several months to learn about their lives as part of his PhD in sociology. What he experienced turned him into an activist and taught him, he says, about how state neglect is an unofficial policy of tacit endorsement of exploitation.

“This province is very important for its agriculture for Europe. There are 10,000 agriculture co-ops here, but there are only two inspectors. Only two,” he says.

“When the local bosses see their cars coming, they send a text message to the workers and everyone hops on their bicycle so when inspector arrives, he sees just two workers.”

Marco Omizzolo, left, chats with a Sikh farm labourer. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Italy’s infamous red tape and backlog of court cases also make criminal prosecution rare.

“There’s terrible confusion about the administrative and investigative roles that waste time and resources,” Italian high court judge Bruno Giordano recently told Espresso magazine.

Giordano was instrumental in pushing for a law that not only allows for the arrest of caporali, the middle-men who acquire and mistreat workers, but also the seizure of property of the co-op owners. “But to carry out a raid on just one co-op involves co-ordinating with the health department, the labour inspector, the local police and other agencies.”

Omizzolo’s advocating for the rights of the Sikhs earned him an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in December 2018. But it’s come at a high personal price. In the past several years, he says he’s had two cars destroyed and dozens of death threats. He’s now under police protection.

Sikh workers find solace and solidarity in the local temple, which is housed in the back of a factory. (Megan Williams/CBC)

And it’s still a challenge to encourage the young Sikh workers to stand up for their rights.

He says spending Sunday afternoons at the local Sikh temple set up in the back of an empty factory among the fields has been essential. There, hundreds of workers gather to worship and share a meal together during what for most is their only half-day off.

“One of principles of Sikhism is the equality among people,” he says. “So I stress that to the young men afraid of the bosses that even those cruel bosses are equal to them. Giving that message in this religious place is what got people finally protesting.”

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