The stereotype is a young woman forced to work in a brothel, strip club or massage parlour.
Reality cuts across all walks of life.
Nannies. Construction workers. Seasonal farmers.
"Nobody knows the language of human trafficking," says Sherilyn Trompetter, assistant executive director of Changing Together, an Edmonton-based NGO that leads the Alberta Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Many exploited foreign workers are treated simply as employees in poor working conditions, not as human trafficking victims, Trompetter says, pointing to the case of 30 Polish welders who arrived in Alberta in 2005 and 2006 under false pretences and were paid less than half their expected wages.
"Human trafficking in general in Canada needs to be redefined and it needs to be stated that we've already seen these patterns; these patterns have always existed," she says. "We're just not calling it what it is."
In a four-part series running across the country this week, Sun Media looks at Canada's hidden trade in people; at the failure of this country to live up to its international obligations on human trafficking, to prosecute human traffickers and meaningfully help victims.
Human trafficking is defined under Canadian law as "the recruitment, transportation or harbouring of persons for the purpose of exploitation," the RCMP writes on its website.
Trafficking can be a family member offering up a child to work in Canada as a domestic servant.
It can be a live-in caregiver who is brought into the country and told she will be paid with a roof over her head, not understanding she is also entitled to a wage.
And sometimes, the exploitation is based on false promises, unfulfilled visas and what seem to be a lack of options: A group of trades people who arrive in Canada only to be shuffled to another employer and paid a fraction of what was agreed upon.
"It's often degrees of exploitation," Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench says in Montreal. "The more vulnerable people are, the more easy it is to exploit them."
The Alberta Federation of Labour moved to address the living and working conditions of temporary foreign workers in 2006 when, for the first time ever, Alberta had more of these workers in the booming province than permanent immigrants.
At the time, there were nearly 22,400 temporary foreign workers in Alberta -- doubled from 2003 and tripled from 1997.
The following year, AFL launched the Temporary Foreign Worker Advocate with Edmonton lawyer Yessy Byl at the helm.
By the time of her six-month report, Byl had heard from more than 1,400 people and opened case files for 123 temporary foreign workers "in need of assistance."
"An analysis of the 123 files handled by the Advocate reveals a troubling picture of how Alberta is treating this group of workers," the report said.
"Quite frankly, we are exploiting their vulnerability and taking advantage of their precarious position." The problems can start in a victim's home country, where employment agencies have been known to charge anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 to process Canadian job applications, says Anette Sikka, who spent several years trying to combat human trafficking in Kosovo before returning to Canada where she is researching human trafficking at the University of Ottawa.
In some cases, agencies are charging workers for skills and language training in their home country and then charging a "settlement" fee upon arrival in Canada -- calling it such gets them around provincial provisions that make it illegal to charge for finding employment, Sikka says.
DEBT TO PAY
Like many trafficking victims who are smuggled into this country, these victims are, too, told they have a debt to pay off. We found you a job, now you owe us some money.
And there is nobody telling them otherwise.
"There's nobody to check up on them," Sikka says.
With no official agreement obligating the federal government to tell the provinces who, when and how many people are arriving as temporary foreign workers or live-in caregivers, employment standards branches across the country, no matter how good their intentions, don't have the necessary information to check up on workers, Sikka says.
"There's no mandatory orientation done," she says. "It's absolutely, 100% necessary. I think it's the primary thing we can do to stop the types of trafficking that are going on in Western Canada particularly." Debt bondage aside, workers can fall into a "vicious cycle" of exploitation simply by not being informed of their rights upon arrival, Sikka says.
Something as simple as informing workers about the procedure of changing employers would be helpful for foreign workers who are granted visas to work at one place, but upon arrival in Canada, are shuffled over to different employers.
By the time they figure out they are working illegally, experts say, these workers may be hesitant to speak out about an exploitive situation for fear of deportation.
"They can change employers if they want, but they're just not told," Sikka says. "Nobody informs them they have to go through that procedure."
"Families who are sending people over, they'll do just about anything: Mortgage homes, take out loans, really just put all their eggs in one basket. So when the person gets here and if the job isn't what they had expected or they're not making the money they had expected or, in some cases, there's actually no job, they've been charged all this money and they end up working illegally," Sikka says. "And then they're stuck in this vicious cycle where they may not be working in accordance to their visa, but they're in such high debt bondage, there's just nothing they can do."
At the International Bureau for Children's Rights in Montreal, program manager Catherine Gauvreau recounts a story that began to unravel a few years ago about a trafficked teenaged girl.
Having been separated from her parents during a 1990s conflict in her home country and subsequently separated from her siblings, the girl arrived in Canada with a woman posing as her aunt.
"The child is obviously in a desperate situation in this case. She (the 'aunt') brings the child here, the child goes through the process, is accepted under false identity."
The victim ended up in a home where she "basically does domestic servitude, she takes care of the family, of the children," all the while under psychological control and physical abuse from the family, Gauvreau says.
"She goes into the school system. No one believes her because this is not something that supposedly happens in Canada."
That child, who is now an adult, became a successful refugee claimant after a friend's mother finally found credence in her allegations.
"It's important to recognize that some of the situations are domestic ones, where you have women and men, children even, who are kind of house servants and they're kept in the house and not able to get out," Dench says with this message for the government: "Try to make sure that people have as many opportunities as possible to assert their rights."
Loly Rico, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto and president of Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, has seen cases of Canadians returning to their home countries to recruit people for work and bring them back to Canada. But instead of paying them money, they pay the workers with food and shelter.
"But they don't let you go out," Rico says.
Of the three trafficked women who have walked into Rico's office this year, two were forced into the sex trade; one was in forced domestic, abusive labour, she says.
"In most of the cases, they have been brought by relatives or friends," she says, adding most victims she has seen over the years come from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Sikka points out domestic and agricultural workers are often excluded from Employment Standards legislation.
"A lot of people want to be involved in trafficking. It's a big, sexy, glamorous, organized crime issue. Whether that's really the case is another story. And I don't think it is," Sikka says. "People don't always want to hear that. It's just not newsworthy, I guess. Because it's been happening for so long and people have ignored it for so long, now that we call it trafficking, they're still ignoring it."
"It just becomes everybody's responsibility to, in a sense, look out for your neighbour," says Robin Pike, executive director of the B.C. Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons. "If people are suspicious that the live-in caregiver next door has had her passport taken and has never been paid, it really is the eyes of the public."
"The one thing that I think that we should do faster than immediately is the education component," Manitoba MP Joy Smith says. "We should make sure that on airplanes people are warned about human trafficking. We should make sure that there's a 1-800 number if somebody's in trouble, with the resources behind it to make sure that person can be rescued."
"There's no one that wishes to be in bondage. There's no one that wishes to be confined. And there's no one that wishes to be used," she says, adding more resources need to be poured into educating police about identifying victims.
South of Ontario, where a state-wide task force funded by the U.S. government is set up to combat human trafficking, Amy Fleischauer says of the dozens of victims she has come across over the last year and a half, she can't paint just one picture of their situations.
There have been sex workers, restaurant workers, farm workers, domestic workers, says the trafficking victim services co-ordinator for the International Institute of Buffalo.
"They've been all ages. We've served some minors, but the large majority of our clients have been older, in their 30s and 40s," she says. "There really has been no trend or no one face of trafficking or one characteristic."
Most don't identify themselves as trafficking victims and are referred to Fleischauer by other organizations.
By the time they end up on her doorstep, they want to learn English; they want to know when they can work next; they want employment skills.
"We try to meet those needs and establish some trust and explain their rights and even what their rights are in this country if they're undocumented," she says.
"Those have been some really tough conversations -- that even if you are not in this country legally, you can't be beaten."
Winnipeg Sun, Tues Sept 30 2008
Byline: Tamara Cherry