By Natalia Buendia Calvillo
With numerous construction projects and a significant lack of skilled workers in B.C., some subcontractors are turning to undocumented workers from other countries to meet the demand.
Some migrants with visitor visas come to the province to work illegally in construction after they get a lead from their families or friends.
They do it for different reasons, such as to support their family financially, get a better-paying summer job, find immigration opportunities, have an adventure and learn English, or in some cases, get away from their violent hometowns.
Many young workers live in overcrowded houses, receive lower-than-average wages, and have no access to affordable medical care. They’re also vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.
Laura Best is a lawyer and co-founder of Embarkation, a Vancouver law firm specializing in immigration law.
“Having a precarious status means that they are far more vulnerable to abuse by employers because they do not have the same access to workers’ compensation if they are injured, or employment insurance if they are laid off, or can’t complain to the Employment Standards Branch if they are not being paid minimum wage,” Best said.
“They may not have options if they have to do unsafe work.”
All of them work under substandard conditions, compared to their legally employed counterparts. Companies that hire individuals without authorization can be fined up to $50,000 and receive two years in jail.
Employers barely get prosecuted
“It is very, very, rare for [Canadian Border Services Agency] to go after the employers,” Best said. “In my experience, it is far more common to round up and detain, then remove the workers very quickly.”
Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, illegal workers are issued an exclusion order barring them from Canada for at least one year.
Sergio, who requested that his full name not be published, is a young Mexican construction worker without a permit whose aims to do a marketing co-op program at a Canadian school and eventually open his own business.
He said Canada makes him feel safe because he knows he won’t get threatened or harassed by narcos when he walks down the street.
He feels content to be here, despite knowing he is getting paid less to do the same job as his legally employed coworkers.
According to the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., the market wage in construction ranges from $21.46 to $37.95 per hour and is set to increase annually.
In some cases, undocumented workers get $14 per hour for a job that pays $35, while in others, they don’t get paid at all.
“I have learned a lot of English since I came here, and I once overheard how they were getting paid $23 to $24 when I was receiving $14. And I asked myself, what is happening with those 10 dollars?”
Some workers live in overcrowded three-bedroom houses with more than 15 people, or one-bedroom apartments in downtown Vancouver where a small, shared den can be rented for $800. Even bathtubs and closets have been known to be used as sleeping areas.
“I shared a one-bedroom and den apartment with five other people … each one of us paid $575.”
|(Photo by Natalia Buendia Calvillo)|
Sergio tried several jobs in Mexico before working in Canada. He started his own clothing business in his home country and worked as a local government clerk. He also worked as a driver, but after being threatened, he decided to come to Canada.
“I bought [a car], I signed it up with Uber and I had three situations where [narcos] stopped me and took me out of the car,” he said about his time in Mexico. “Confusing me for somebody else, they put a gun to my head. It is a terrible feeling.”
No training? not a barrier for illegal employment
Most of the undocumented workers interviewed for this series have never worked in construction before. Construction positions in Mexico and Latin America offer some of the lowest wages, so they’re not a popular career choice.
Jay Collie is a labour foreman with more than 15 years of experience building high-rises and residential buildings in B.C. He has worked with undocumented labourers and concrete finishers from different countries.
“Some people come over with knowledge that is not credited by the Canadian system and some people come over ‘green’ – meaning not knowing, but willing to learn,” Collie said.
Commenting on wage disparity or in some cases, withheld wages, Collie said undocumented workers are being mistreated.
“They are frustrated. They come to work every day. They are supposed to get paid on the first and the 15th. They get paid maybe half their cheque or this or that, which is unfair,” he said. “They worked hard, they should get paid for every hour they put in.”
Underground market on social media
Workers are usually hired by family or friends who work in the industry either legally or illegally, and by using popular social media apps where jobs are posted.
“I need five people to start on Tuesday at a new site. For the moment, men only. Experience preferred. Intermediate English is mandatory…Salary is $13 to $16 per hour and it is paid in cash… Thank you in advance, I will only answer via Whatsapp,” stated a recent post.
One of the largest Mexican groups hosts approximately 20,000 members, and while everyone is welcome, most of the posts are in Spanish and targeted to the Mexican community in the Lower Mainland.
“Does someone have amoxicillin? How much and where can you deliver?” asked someone in need of antibiotics.
Other popular topics include Compass Cards, cash jobs, Mexican food and cigarettes, medicines, immigration advice, shared rentals and construction equipment for sale. Services offered include massages, currency exchange and one-way airline tickets to different areas of Mexico.
Most of the workers are aware of the living conditions and the legal risks of working without a permit. Despite this, they’d rather stay in Canada temporarily as an illegal worker than going back to their country.
In the last five years, more than 8,000 foreign nationals have been removed for being non-compliant with the immigration act.
Next in the series: A focus on undocumented workers’ health