Ontario employers who withhold foreign workers’ passports or work permits could face steeper penalties under new labour laws, with maximum fines setting them back up to $200,000.

“One group of workers who are often forgotten are migrant workers,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said during a press conference on Monday. “While most employers care about their workers, some continue to take advantage of them, including illegally holding their passports and work permits.”

McNaughton proposed new legislation that would hit employers with penalties of $100,000 to $200,000 for each passport that is withheld.

Individuals who are convicted of withholding passport would be liable to either a fine of up to $500,000, up to 12 months imprisonment, or both, McNaughton noted. Businesses that are convicted could see a fine of up to $1 million.

The new legislation comes after York police busted an alleged international labour trafficking ring where 64 Mexican-born nationals were forced to work and live in “deplorable” conditions. Police charged those allegedly involved under human trafficking laws.

With the new fines, McNaughton says they will assist the ministry’s new anti-trafficking unit, which was launched 18 months ago to fight labour trafficking in the province. During the first year of operation, the ministry says it helped 3,500 workers regain $400,000 in wages.

“My message to those scumbags out there abusing migrant workers is this – you can run, but you can’t hide. We will find you, fine you and put you behind bars,” McNaughton said. 

On Monday, the labour ministry also proposed amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). If passed, the maximum fine for businesses would increase to $2 million should they be convicted of an offence under it.

Additionally, McNaughton touched on how the ministry would be introducing its third edition of the Working for Workers Act on Monday, which will propose new job protections including – but not limited to – remote workers’ protections during mass terminations and amendments to require women’s-only washrooms on construction sites.