A precarious fate

Research and innovation
Faculty of Law - Common Law Section

By Valérie Charbonneau

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

 Delphine Nakache
Photo: Valérie Charbonneau
The lives of migrant workers in Canada are often fraught with difficulties. Delphine Nakache is seeking solutions to the complex legal issues involved.

The opportunity to come and earn a living in Canada is filled with hopes for a better life. Once they have arrived in the country, however, most migrants face a series of daunting issues; only the most fortunate among them enjoy “smooth sailing” over the long term.

“Migration issues are extremely complex,” says Delphine Nakache, a professor in the Faculty of Law (Common Law Section), who specializes in immigration and refugee law. Based on research she has carried out since 2018 on behalf of the Precarious Migration Project, individuals can legally enter Canada with a work permit but may eventually find themselves without legal status due to circumstances beyond their control. “It’s not right that a migrant’s trajectory within Canada should be based solely on luck,” she adds.

Nakache plans to meet and arrange interviews with 250 migrants who are particularly vulnerable due to their precarious status in Canada. These interviews, conducted with the help of community organizations and researchers from various Canadian universities, have already begun, and the team is faced with a revealing finding: all too often, migrants are victims of abuse, violence or human trafficking. The interviewees have also confirmed a key hypothesis: losing regular migrant status in Canada is not a matter of personal choice.

“During interviews, we’ve discovered that a series of government decisions and complex situations are making life difficult for migrants. But the goal is not to blame the government,” explains Nakache. “Rather, the project aims to identify and analyze on a cross-Canada basis the many challenges faced by migrants authorized to work in this country and seeking to maintain their legal status. We also want to find ways to reduce the level of bureaucracy — which can be cumbersome at times — to avoid complex situations.” As a result, migrants’ lives might change for the better.

Consider the case of Victoria (not her real name), a young Ukrainian mother in the process of obtaining a divorce. Thanks to a single-employer work permit, she had the opportunity to work in Canada. But as soon as she arrived, her dreams fell to pieces: she was required to pick mushrooms for up to 15 hours a day on the farm where she worked, and her employer was demanding and abusive. After six months of back-breaking labour, she was fired and found herself on the street. Tied to this one employer under the terms of her permit, Victoria was forced to work under the table if she wanted to survive and try to return to Ukraine. For four long years, Victoria eked out a living in Canada under precarious conditions while suffering the abusive effects of her irregular status.

“In this particular case, the type of permit granted lies at the heart of the problem,” says Nakache. “If Victoria had been able to obtain a sector-specific permit instead of a single-employer permit, the risk of abuse would have been greatly reduced because she would have been able to work legally for another employer in the agricultural sector. In the end, she could have avoided lengthy delays before seeing her children again.”

Nakache’s research interests do not stop there: she is currently leading the Canadian section of an international project aiming to establish a critical approach to vulnerability among migrants seeking protection. In that role, she is working closely with front-line decision makers at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

The idea of developing other related projects continues to drive Nakache’s day-to-day activities. Future initiatives include research on elderly migrants. One can only imagine how the issue of age adds an additional layer of vulnerability to a group of individuals whose life choices are already limited and undermined.

Recruitment and migrants’ rights

Recruitment agencies play a key role in the hiring of foreign workers, particularly when filling essential service positions. Mylène Coderre-Proulx, a PhD candidate at the School of International Development and Globalization and coordinator of the Precarious Migration Project, is studying the issues that link these agencies to migrant agricultural workers.

“I am seeking insight into the factors affecting the pathways of migrant workers, either by increasing or decreasing their level of precarity,” she explains. “By identifying policy gaps and protection issues, this research is giving me an opportunity to hone my expertise. Consequently, I am better able to analyze and help inform Canada’s immigration policies so they meet international standards on migrants’ rights.”

The public debate in Canada all too often reduces the plight of migrant workers to a “labour” issue, notes Coderre-Proulx. It is essential, however, that our migration policies do justice to individuals who chose or were forced to leave their countries of origin by fully recognizing their contributions to Canadian society.

Mylène Coderre-Proulx
Mylène Coderre-Proulx, a PhD candidate at the School of International Development and Globalization and coordinator of the Precarious Migration Project