Temporary Recruitment Agencies, Immigrant Labour and Labour Precariousness in Montréal

By Viviana Medina & Manuel Salamanca, Members of the Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA) of Montreal

Few people in Montréal are aware of the central role of Temporary Recruitment Agencies (TRAs), also known as Temporary Placement Agencies, in creating labour precarity across Québec, particularly for immigrant workers. Basically, labour precarity is a concept used to describe workers who rely on temporary, “flexible”, casual work, who are often not protected by basic labour standards and who are poorly paid and easily exploitable.

Temporary Recruitment Agencies are a “third party” in the usually direct relationship between worker and boss. They are contracted to do the hiring, ring, payment and placement of workers instead of the employer. Employers use TRAs to avoid directly contracting their own employees- and subsequently the legal and economic obligations that come with having workers. Currently in Montréal, there are more than five hundred legal TRAs, and many many more working without an operating license. The industry of temp placement agencies has grown rapidly over the last fifteen years, and so also the importance of TRAs in the labour market overall. Their important place in the labour market means that TRAs are normalizing labour precarity in Québec– and they are doing so on the basis of the legal and social status of their workers, whether they be poor, white citizens of undocumented women of colour single mothers.

The driving force of TRAs is to provide the cheapest labour possible. TRAs offer this “cheap product” by taking advantage of workers’ conditions of vulnerability– most often derived from their im/migrant and social status.  These things include lack of proficiency in English and/or French, lack of or less access to social and health protection (in the case of refugees, refugee claimants and undocumented people), lack of recognized education, skills and diplomas, lack of work permits, or the existence of closed work permits tied to one single employer. Immigrant workers feel like renewable, replaceable, and upgradeable resources who are willing to work under any conditions, and must renounce their social status and education, hiding their qualifications to adapt to the lowest rungs of the labour market. Many of these circumstances are produced directly or indirectly by Québec and Canadian migration policies.

TRAs, and the employers they contract to, take advantage of these situation. Standard forms of labour abuse when working through a TRA include no payment for work hours, vacations, extra hours, break times, lunch times, and holidays. Delayed payments are common (as well as not being paid at all), no reimbursement for work equipment, insufficient safety and health standards, different pay and labour conditions compared to Québecois or permanent workers, getting paid less than minimum wage, no breakdown of salary information, intensive and exploitative work pace, requiring workers to be immediately available at any time, lack of recognition of skills and education, lack of transparency in contract conditions, payment evasion, racist, sexist and discriminatory practices at work, impossibility of unionizing, no respect for break and lunch times, and much more. All these conditions represent businesses’ savings and lower operating costs. Voila! This is the reason for the existence of TRAs!

Despite these injustices, the lack of attention from authorities to TRAs’ abuses is astonishing. The current Québec labour code does not guarantee respect for immigrant workers’ rights, and there aren’t any specific regulations regarding TRAs’ activities. Is this lack of attention related to the fact that many sectors of Québec’s businesses survive thanks to immigrant’s precarious and cheap labour? Work abuses perpetrated by, and thanks to TRAs, are countless, and they are increasing and spreading among Canadians as well. However, the lack of political will of authorities seems to be based on the need for this exploitation.