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Marie-Anne DAYÉ

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A hotline to counter human trafficking

Human trafficking can be difficult to recognize, and can take many forms. To inform the public and help those impacted by this crime, the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking launched a hotline in 2019.

Text by Marie-Anne Dayé

In Canada, low-wage temporary foreign workers and people with precarious status are more vulnerable to human trafficking, specifically workplace exploitation, according to Paola Carmagnani, Senior Executive Advisor at the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. These people are more at risk of abusive practices because they may be geographically isolated, unfamiliar with their labour rights in Canada, and may face language barriers.

Various forms of human trafficking 

Human trafficking is the exploitation of human beings for the financial or material benefit of the trafficker. More specifically, “trafficking can exist in many forms and usually entails victims being caused to provide sexual services or labour through force, coercion, deception and/or abuse of trust, power or authority” as stated on the Centre’s website. Sex trafficking and forced labor are the most common forms of human trafficking in Canada, according to data published in July 2023.

  1. Trafficking for forced labor (or forced labor or labor exploitation) is the use of fraud, violence, threats or lies to force someone to work. For example, unsafe working conditions, abuse or discrimination, or wages lower than those stipulated in the employment contract may be indicators of trafficking.
  2. Trafficking for sexual exploitation (or commercial sexual exploitation) involves forcing someone to provide commercial sexual services through manipulation, lies, threats or violence for personal gain in exchange for food, accommodation, money, drugs or transport, for example.

In May 2019, the Human Trafficking Hotline (1 833 900-1010) was set up to counter this disturbing phenomenon. Between 2019 and 2022, it received over 12,700 calls, and 1,500 cases of human trafficking were identified across Canada, particularly in Ontario (67%), Alberta (10%), British Columbia (9%) and Quebec (7%); this is the first independent national data on trafficking. In Canada, official government data published by Statistics Canada is based on cases reported to the police. In Paola’s opinion, the reality is that the rate of denunciation of this crime is very low. “Official statistics don’t come close to capturing the scale of the problem. Trafficking is very present in Canada, but it’s still very poorly understood. There are still a lot of misconceptions and misinformation”.

She explains that trafficking is often associated with the image of a person being kidnapped, transported to Canada against her will, or confined. But the reality in Canada is quite different. “It’s difficult to understand the strategies of recruitment, isolation, coercion, control and exploitation. Very often, the victim herself doesn’t realize it,” says Carmagnani. “On the one hand, there’s ignorance, and on the other, there’s a lack of specialized training on trafficking at national level, including within the police, which means that even they miss some very strong indicators. Even if we’re fully aware of everything, it’s still very difficult to prove emotional coercion where there’s no tangible evidence,” she adds.

Here are a few indicators of forced or coerced labor (note that these indicators should not be read in isolation. A combination of several indicators is often required).

  • Invoicing of recruitment costs to the worker
  • Invoicing of accommodation, transport, etc. by an intermediary agent (which may be a way of transferring legal responsibility) to the worker
  • Non-compliance with elements of the employment contract
  • Promises of access to permanent residence or citizenship
  • Confiscation of worker’s personal documents such as passport
  • Absence of employment contract
  • Threats to deport the worker to his or her own country

Fraudulent agencies

In Quebec, all personnel placement and temporary foreign worker recruitment agencies must hold a permit issued by the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST). The register of permit holders can be consulted on the CNESST website. However, some registered agencies continue, for example, to charge recruitment fees to foreign workers, it can be seen in a report broadcast on Radio-Canada’s Enquête program on October 26, 2023, even though this has been banned in Quebec since 2020. “We see a lot of situations like this: fraud in relation to the immigration system, documentation, actors posing as regulated and registered immigration consultants when they’re not, all with the aim of receiving commissions,” Paola Carmagnani says.

Ways out

Fortunately, there are services available for victims of abuse, fraud or exploitation, such as the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline. It’s free, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in French and English (telephone interpretation in other languages is available at all times). It is independent of government and law enforcement agencies, and can be used completely anonymously. The agent answering the call will make an assessment of the person’s safety, help them find available services and explore options, and may put them in touch with localized services. The hotline, at the caller’s request, can also facilitate the transfer of information to the police, as appropriate. This can be done anonymously to protect the identity of the source. The agent will remain available to the caller for follow-up and support.

There is also a special Temporary Resident Permit (TRP) for victims of human trafficking who have no legal status in Canada, which grants temporary immigrant status for 180 days, but is renewable. Although this permit is an essential tool in certain cases, it remains limited. It’s important to remember that “it’s a permit that doesn’t allow you to reunite with your family or leave the country”, says Paola. What’s more, while it’s relatively easier to obtain a first temporary residence permit, it can be difficult to renew. When looking for a new job, workers are often turned down by employers who don’t look kindly on this type of permit, she explains. This type of discrimination and prejudice, combined with the fact that employers in the same sector can be very supportive of each other, doesn’t make the victim’s recovery and reintegration process any easier,” she continues.

“For these reasons, the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking is calling on the Government of Canada to ensure that every worker who comes to Canada has an open work permit, equal access to social services, a path to permanent residency and the opportunity to unionize. Together, these policies will eliminate the harmful power imbalance between employers and migrant workers that facilitates labour trafficking,” concludes Paola Carmagnani.

The project was funded by the Government of Canada.

Cover photo : Nadine Shaabana sur Unsplash

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