Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced a slew of controversies during his week-long India visit. From accusations of close ties to Khalistani separatists to talk that the Indian government snubbed him, Trudeau has had a rocky few days.

Amid this maelstrom, any conversations on human rights or labour rights has been lost. Usually these conversations are one-sided, where Canada lectures developing countries about their abysmal human rights records. But it is time to point the finger at Canada’s lacklustre record on this front.

Earlier this week, there were several reports in the Canadian media about how two migrant temple workers from Tamil Nadu in India were allegedly exploited at the Sridurka Hindu temple in Toronto. The workers, who arrived in Canada with permits to work as specialised temple sculptors, filed a complaint with Ontario’s Ministry of Labour alleging that they are owed each over Canadian $33,060 in wages for the work they did at the temple over five months.

According to the reports, the workers said they were not paid even the minimum wage and faced verbal and other harassment every day. In their complaint, they alleged that they were made to live in squalid conditions in a cramped basement next to a boiler, and their beds were infested with bedbugs. They were fed stale, leftover food that was barely enough to subsist on. The workers were not provided breaks and other protections under Ontario’s labour law. They alleged that while the temple issued them with monthly cheques of $2,530 each, they were forced to deposit the cheques immediately, withdraw the entire sum and hand it over to the temple, which then gave them back $900 each in cash. They were sent back to India in September, three weeks before their contracts ended.

These conditions would have gone unreported but the workers, with support from the broader community in the area, decided to act to exert their rights for justice and dignity.

Larger problem

The exploitation of migrant workers in religious spaces is not new or unique to the Toronto temple. Despite the veil of secrecy that hangs over religious organisations, several instances of the exploitation of temporary foreign workers by such organisations have been exposed across the world. This includes cases in London, New York and the town of Helensburgh, near Sydney, Australia. The workers involved in all these cases were on temporary foreign worker visas.

This is thus not a story of just labour exploitation in temples. It is a story about how the Canadian immigration system fails migrant workers and allows the production of unfree labour even as Canada professes to protect human rights, including labour rights across the globe.

Religious and charitable institutions in Canada get a variety of exemptions from the regular employment visa process. As a result, employers such as temple trusts and committees are able to hire workers from India through simplified procedures, which are faster.

Across the world, religious spaces are usually secure from public scrutiny because they are held in high regard by society. This is also true in Canada, where temples and gurdwaras, among other religious spaces, are seen as important spaces that bolster the nation’s multicultural image.

Hindu temples also have a caste hierarchy and traditions that regulate how workers are treated in temples. When coupled with a system like Canada’s Temporary Foreign Work programme, which institutionalises unfree labor and deportability, the inequalities in the labour relationship are further exacerbated, inevitably leading to cases such as the Sridurka Temple case.

Temporary foreign worker migration

Thousands of migrant workers are employed in Canada under the auspices of the Temporary Foreign Workers programme – which permits employers to hire foreign nationals when qualified citizens or permanent residents are not available. This employer-driven programme ties workers to a single employer and denies them any form of social or labour mobility.

Migrants are brought in to fill labour shortages on farms, to work as nannies, and are found in the construction industry as well as in religious organisations. This system allows hundreds of thousands of workers to be employed in conditions eerily similar to the indentureship system that brought Indians to the Caribbean once the slave trade was abolished in the United Kingdom. Despite the end of the indentureship programme in 1918, access to Canadian citizenship continued to be modeled on preferential priority for white Anglo-Saxons. In the 1960s, the immigration system was reformed to remove overt discrimination in access to Canadian citizenship by allowing skilled persons from across the globe to permanently immigrate to Canada.

At the same time, temporary work permit programmes began to be instituted for low-wage migrants from developing countries. These migrants were encouraged to contribute their labour to Canada, but had no access to permanent residence or citizenship. These employees work for a specific employer for a specific period of time under strict mobility and employment conditions, such as having to depend on the employer for housing and food. As soon as they arrive in Canada, such workers are put in a relationship of strict dependency with their employers. Employers can terminate contracts and repatriate the workers to their home countries at any time during the course of employment. Under this system, workers are actively discouraged from demanding their rights, organising, or taking recourse to the law for fear of reprisals by their employers and subsequent deportation.

During the term of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-2015), the Temporary Foreign Workers programme was greatly expanded. In 2008, there were almost as many foreign citizens arriving in Canada under the temporary workers scheme as there were permanent residence approvals. After a public outcry, which saw people organising themselves against the changed immigration system, the Trudeau government that succeeded Harper’s, responded by limiting the number of temporary foreign workers, especially in the “lower-skilled categories”. This essentially shut Canada’s doors on several poor workers from developing countries.

At the same time, no policies have changed to alleviate the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers. In the low-wage sector, these workers still have limited access to permanent residence or labour mobility, even when they work under exploitative conditions. Thus, while close to one million Canadians have ties to India, tens of thousands of Indian nationals work and live in precarious conditions in Canada.

As the egregious abuses of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker programme continue to be brought to public attention, it is imperative that people organise transnationally to demand an end to the existence of 18th century conditions in the 21st century. Indentureship was never a solution to alleviate poverty in India in the 1800s, nor should it be a viable solution today.

Chris Ramsaroop is an organiser with Justicia for Migrant Workers, Canada. Vasanthi Venkatesh is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Windsor, Canada.