Home and a Hard Place: A Roundtable on Migrant Labour

Kimiko Inouye

While migrant worker organizing has a long and established position in American labour history, the stories and struggles of migrant workers in Canada remain less well known. In recent years the Canadian state has created a series of labour policies that both ease the entry of temporary workers to the country and impose on them a distinct set of laws governing working conditions, applications for status, the right to unionize, and job security. Together this dual system of labour regulation has been described as a form of status-based “labour apartheid.” While differences exist in how migrant workers are disciplined and regulated by the Canadian state, the ways in which workers have tried to organize follow similar patterns and face similar challenges.  This roundtable includes organizers who have worked with either migrant domestic workers or farm workers. By their accounts, the challenges involved in developing migrant worker movements led by the workers themselves have been significant. The reality is that the conditions imposed on migrant workers by the Canadian government and employers make it extremely difficult for them to organize themselves without the initiative and continuing support of allies. The participants in this roundtable discuss these conditions and the challenges to be met.

Evelyn Calugay and Tess Tesalona have worked with PINAY, the first Filipina women’s organization in Québec.  Founded in 1991 by a social worker, PINAY focuses on the issues faced by domestic workers, both nationally and internationally,  and is a member of Migrante International. Evelyn is the chairperson of PINAY. Tess is an organizer with PINAY, and a former coordinator of the Immigrant Worker’s Centre in Montréal.

Adriana Paz, Aylwin Lo, and Chris Ramsaroop work with Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), a grassroots collective based in Toronto and Vancouver. J4MW was established in 2002, following a series of investigative missions by activists to farming communities in Ontario. It supports the rights of seasonal Caribbean and Mexican migrant workers who work under the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Adriana is based in Vancouver.  Aylwin and Chris are based in Toronto.

Given that migrant work is regulated by both federal and provincial governments, can you explain the various programs that have been created over the years? What are some of the most recent changes, particularly in light of the increasingly neoliberal context in which we find ourselves? How do provincial regulations create different conditions and contexts for migrant work across Canada?

Chris: There are several temporary worker programs in Canada: CREWS (for the construction industry), the Live-In Caregiver Program, Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.  The main commonality is that workers under these programs are regulated differently than workers that have status in Canada. Their status as non-residents justifies their exclusion from entitlements, benefits, and protections otherwise accorded by the Canadian state.

Because labour law varies from province to province, there is a patchwork of legislative regimes across Canada. For example, in Manitoba, unlike most provinces, migrant workers are provided with extended coverage under the provincial employment standards regime, including for overtime pay and holidays. Alberta does not provide migrant workers with workers’ compensation while most other provinces do. British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Québec permit migrant agricultural workers to organize as a unionized workforce, while Ontario does not. In British Colombia, workers are not covered under the provincial Medical Services Plan program. In Ontario, migrant workers are denied basic coverage until they are given health cards, usually three months after their arrival in Canada. They can also be denied basic health care if they are seriously injured or become very sick after their work terms are over. Across Canada migrant workers are denied equal access to health care.

Despite the limited legal rights that migrant workers formally enjoy, many face the threat of deportation and permanent banning from future work in Canada should they try to exercise them. Numerous workers that we have encountered in our work are now banned from working in Canada as a result of exercising their rights to receive workers’ compensation, to demand adequate housing, and to demand justice at work. Canadian immigration laws also deny the majority of workers they deem to be “low skilled” the opportunity to apply for permanent residency in Canada. Despite the existence of provincial nominee programs or the ability of participants in the Live-In Caregiver Program to apply for permanent residency, these are really carrot and stick approaches that still indenture workers to employers. Instead of explicitly denying racialized migrant workers legal status, the Canadian state is able to justify exclusion on the basis of their skills, which is an equally insidious way of denying them the right to residency.

Adriana: Canada openly embraces the temporary workers program while adopting restrictive immigration policies that are subordinated to economic criteria. This is one of the worst expressions of neoliberalism in the area of immigration. So, on the one hand, Canada maintains an immigration system that is racist and discriminatory for people who don’t have money, and on the other hand it opens the door for temporary migration. There is a growing tendency to try to keep people permanently “temporary.” The state is not considering solutions that would incorporate these workers as permanent immigrants. Rather, the management of the migration flow, including questions of status, is being narrowly dictated by the labour demands of employers without addressing the root causes and contexts of migration.

Evelyn: In Québec, I find there’s a double challenge, for example in the structure of the Live-In Care Giver program. The federal government made the program very restrictive to begin with, but the Québec government has added its own regulations that bring in even more restrictions. For example, due to the requirement of getting a certificate of acceptance to work in Québec, it takes about 4–6 months to transfer a work permit from one employer to another, compared to only one month in the other provinces. If workers transfer their employment two or three times, they are likely to lose the chance to complete the requirement of working 24 months within a 36-month period. In this case there is a greater possibility of being denied permanent resident status and being sent back home, or of being forced to repeat the program for another three years. Compared to other provinces, the bureaucracy in Québec adds another layer to the difficulties that live-in caregivers experience. In a way, these workers have become pawns in federal and provincial power struggles.

An additional challenge for us is the absence of assistance from the Philippine government in times of crisis. For example, when a Filipino migrant worker asks for assistance from the Philippine government with their employment conditions, the response they hear is, “You stay there. Stay with your employer and just deal with the difficulties. We know you can do it.” This is because the Philippine government is benefiting economically from our remittances and they know they cannot provide work at home.

Tess: For domestic workers, the requirement to live with your employer twenty-four hours a day for five or more days a week means that you are always working.  When people say, “Well, there is time off when the children are asleep,” they don’t understand that when the employer goes to a movie and the baby cries it’s your responsibility to get up and do what you have to do. There is no real time off when you are required to live with your employer.

There have been some reforms in Québec around the workweek and wages.  Before the last reform of the labour standards law, domestic workers were not included in the rules that applied to other workers. The maximum workweek for domestic workers was 62 hours and the hourly minimum wage did not apply. We worked hard to get the same regulations applied to domestic workers – 40 hour weeks and the minimum wage. With reforms in 2002, we were able to win the same rights as other workers but the problem of implementation remains because of the live-in aspect of the program. Because of this the wage for domestic workers still falls short of the required minimum wage in Québec. 

Our organizing focus right now is on health and safety. In health and safety regulations, domestic work is not considered work. We are trying to change that. We’re also engaged in trying to win public health care benefits for domestic workers, because when domestic workers lose their work permits, they also lose their Medicare privileges.

How did you get involved in migrant worker organizing and what kind of organizing do you do with migrant workers?

Tess: I have been organizing with domestic workers since 1998. I arrived in Canada in 1993 as a domestic worker under the Foreign Domestic Worker program, now known as the Live-in Caregiver Program. I got into political organizing because of my experiences as a domestic worker. It was important to me on a personal level at the time. Of course it’s been a long time since then and I’ve learned so much since I started.

Aylwin: I got interested in the struggles of migrant workers through organizing the No One is Illegal march in Ottawa during “Take the Capital” in 2002. In 2003, I took part in the Frontier College Labourer-Teacher Program. We lived on farms, worked alongside migrant farm workers from Mexico, and taught English as a Second Language. The idea was that literacy skills would allow migrant workers to better understand and access their rights. I learned a lot about the day-to-day challenges that migrant workers face through that experience. A few months later I answered a Chinese newspaper classified ad and worked alongside some Chinese workers to see what their experiences were. In 2006, I did the “Into the Fields” Student Action with Farmworkers program in North Carolina to get an idea of how people organize with undocumented farm workers there. I helped in the initial stages of setting up a flea market so that migrant workers could sell goods to each other, rather than rely on businesses like Wal-Mart or other retail stores in the community. Currently, my work with Justicia for Migrant Workers has been internal to the organization in terms of organizational support and outreach trips. My family also played a role in my interest in the issue. While my parents weren’t indentured servants by any means, they have done a lot of migrating in search of work and I feel very familiar with the difficulties of family separation that farmworkers and their families face.

Once you get involved with this issue, it’s hard to let it go. Part of the reason for this is that the experiences of migrant workers are still not well known or widely acknowledged. The poor treatment of migrant laborers is something that has existed throughout history, for example in the forms of indentured servitude and slavery. This is a regular historical occurrence – employers and governments exploiting labour without treating or paying workers fairly.

Chris: My own family came from India to Trinidad as indentured labourers. I remember listening to the stories of my grandmother, who was a sugar cane worker in Trinidad.  Since members of my own family are involved in the farm worker program, I have a personal connection to this organizing and the cycle of exploitation really hits home. I started working with migrant workers around 1999/2000. After a brief hiatus from student activism, I applied for a youth internship program with the Canadian Labour Congress called Solidarity Works. As part of the program I went to work for the Canadian office of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), a union formed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta – the union that made migrant worker organizing famous in the US.

The UFW saw their Canadian operations as important mostly in building support for their numerous campaigns in the US, to raise awareness about the conditions of agricultural workers there, as well as to put pressure on Canadian targets of the unions’ corporate campaigns. In the case of the grape boycott, this meant pressuring Canadian purchasers not to buy California grapes until conditions in the industry were improved. The UFW was not particularly aware of the conditions that existed for agricultural workers north of the border. That changed when UFW Canada became involved in a coroner’s inquest into workplace fatalities involving two Mexican Mennonite migrant workers and a Canadian supervisor in 2000-2001. The preparations for the inquest and the research that I undertook made it clear that the laws discriminated against workers from vulnerable communities. Another important incident was a wildcat strike by Mexican seasonal agricultural workers. Dozens of these workers were subsequently deported for their participation in the strike. The workers were demanding better living and working conditions and stood up to their employer. I was given the task of investigating their working and living conditions for the UFW. We started to see the scale of workplace abuses that existed, not only in Leamington, Ontario where the strike took place, but also across the numerous other cities and townships that we visited.

To build support, the UFW developed the Global Justice Care Van project to organize with workers to address the numerous injustices they faced. The project involved creating materials such as health and safety manuals for distribution to migrant workers and organizing “know your rights” sessions and workshops (focused on workers’ compensation, health and safety, pensions, and unemployment insurance) at safe spaces in the local communities where the workers lived. We realized that there were few venues available for providing on-the-ground support for workers and that there was a need to open workers’ centres in the communities. The first one was established in Leamington. The original idea was that these centres would be bases for both service provision and organizing. We also knew that workers would not simply go to the centres and that we would have to conduct house visits, and go to where the workers were (bars, shopping centres, soccer fields, etc.) to interact with them in those spaces.

In the following year, the UFW began a restructuring process that eliminated their Canadian operations. The Candian Labour Congress took over the project for the remainder of my involvement.  Around 2002, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) also returned to the fold of agricultural labour organizing after the regressive nature of the provincial Conservatives’ labour regime rekindled some interest in the issue on their part.

With the coming and going of unions, and the concerns that many people had about the way that the mainstream labour movement approached migrant workers’ issues, several of us concluded that the formal structures of the labour movement would not provide us with the space or the energy needed to move the project forward. Given the complexity and precarity of the conditions that existed for the workers, several of the volunteers involved in the Global Justice Care Van Project created Justicia for Migrant Workers, a collective we believed would be better able to develop a grassroots organizing strategy that was not beholden to a union bureaucracy. J4MW provided a space where we could work with workers to not only put pressure on the Canadian state but also on the unions to ensure that the voices of migrant workers would be heard. J4MW has provided a space for workers and organizers to challenge ourselves on the possibilities and limitations of organizing.

Adriana: The struggles of migrant workers are really connected with our personal lives because most of the members of the J4MW-British Columbia collective are Latinos/as. I am from Bolivia and the rest of the collective is from Mexico. We either worked on farms back home or worked on farms here as undocumented workers. Coming from Latin America, we realize that the oppressions we lived there are connected to oppression in Canada. In that sense, it’s important to be struggling on the front lines. We have a connection and shared historical experience with workers so it’s easy to connect their struggles with our own organizing.

We try to connect with workers on a personal level, to become friends and allies and to build trust. It’s very important to make human connections with individual workers because, in the current economic system, everything is so dehumanized – sometimes even our own organizing. So we try to engage first and foremost on the personal level – caring for workers and asking them where they’re coming from, because it’s really important to understand why they are here. Even though we are clear on our intentions as organizers, we do not always start the relationship by talking politics. We relate to them as peer-immigrants and sometimes as co-nationals sharing experiences of being away from our countries/families/cultures/peoples.

When trust has been built up – whether that takes a few visits, whole agricultural seasons, or several years – workers and organizers can begin to talk about working together as allies. Because we do not do charity work, we as organizers also need to feel that trust. Workers often test us to see if we are serious about being solid allies. Most of them need to know that we’ll be there, season after season. The first season they are here, while they are still assessing the situation, they are thinking: “are you working with me only because it’s a fancy thing for you in your life, or is it a real commitment?”

In the process of building long-standing relationships of trust, we also engage and interact with their families in Mexico as well. Most J4MW organizers go to Mexico and visit workers’ families in their homes. I think this is the most rewarding part of our work because you connect with workers as human beings. The workers have also supported me on different levels. As a new immigrant myself, this has been very therapeutic, and has helped me to feel that Canada is my “home.”

A big part of our work is information and orientation. Workers come with almost no knowledge of their rights. We share information and try to stimulate some action amongst them, helping workers to solve employment and housing problems, and empowering them to stand up for their rights. This means building community systems of support outside of the farms – with unions, lawyers, and the local community – so that workers can feel they have support for political action.

If we agree that movements that challenge and disrupt oppression should be lead by those who are oppressed, can you explain how this politics is or is not applied when it comes to migrant workers? What are some of the complexities in the fight for migrant worker justice?

Tess: Resistance is about a process of change, and change of course doesn’t come naturally – especially when you are fighting for your rights as a person or your rights as a group. Of course it is the oppressed that start resistance, and it is they who will be affected by any change that takes place.  However, it’s hard to organize as migrants. It is difficult because migrant workers have no status at all. For domestic workers, your status is attached to your employer. So if your employer does not like you anymore, then you can be deported. For domestic workers who live with their employers, it is tough to organize. On the other hand, in our experience in PINAY we have seen that it is domestic workers themselves who seize the opportunity to fight against the requirements of the domestic worker program.  In the beginning, when I started with PINAY, the government wanted only contract work, with no opportunity to stay after the contract was over. Every year you had to renew your contract, leave, and then come back. And of course it was the domestic workers who knew what the impact of that was and fought back.

Aylwin: I think it’s about trying to figure out how to assist workers in overcoming the barriers they face to advocating for themselves. You might come to workers with an idea, and then see if it catches on, or if the idea needs refinement. It can come down to trial and error. I think the most important thing is to help workers out at whatever level of risk they’re willing to take. When I was working with the Chinese undocumented workers, there was a strike over non-payment of wages. They decided that they weren’t going to work. The labour subcontractors panicked, and it only took a day or two to win their demand to be paid at the end of each day rather than at the end of the week. I found that action interesting because I don’t think that was a risk that workers who come under the Live-In Caregiver Program would take.

Adriana: The ultimate goal of our collective is that this movement is going to be led by the workers. But at the beginning, there is no infrastructure. Workers are isolated. They don’t have the information about basic things like pay deductions, labour and social benefits, their right to worker’s compensation in case of an accident, parental benefits if they have a child less than one-year-old, how to claim reimbursement for medicine, etc. Workers are afraid to speak out, so it’s very unlikely that they are going to take action on their own.

In the United States, the farm workers movement started in the sixties. There are also more recent examples like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, which is the best example of a self-organizing model or a farm worker-driven movement. Compared to the United States, where the movement is really a movement of migrant workers, we are at the beginning. In Canada, we do not yet have a worker-driven movement, but I hope some day we will. Right now you have either the unions or independent organizers but not a worker-only group or coalition. That development is exactly what J4MW would like to facilitate by recognizing our role as allies. For that reason, we do not say “we speak on their behalf,” because we don’t. If we do anything, it is to point out injustice and to help amplify the voices of workers and contribute to their process of self-organizing until they are able to create a much more articulated movement or campaign of migrant workers. In British Columbia this is only the fourth year of the SAWP. In Ontario it’s probably a bit different because the program is older and there is a larger migrant worker presence.

Chris: What we find is that there are always ways that workers resist. For me, it is important to share these examples with workers in other areas. After migrant workers engaged in a wildcat strike in BC, we shared press releases, news stories, and testimonies of the workers involved with workers in Ontario. When workers fought back against unilateral deportations and unsafe workplaces, we were able to get them to share their stories with others, thus using the workers’ own forms of resistance to educate and organize migrant workers in other regions of Canada. For me this is critical in challenging the invisibility and isolation of migrant workers and building their capacity to resist exploitation.

Dominant discourses of neoliberalism and multi-culturalism produce a perception of migrant work as an “opportunity” for “Third World” people to come to Canada to make money for themselves and their families back home. When workers resist these notions and protest their conditions, there is a tendency to perceive them as “ungrateful” and sometimes “criminal.” How do you disrupt these notions?

Chris: Are people supposed to be grateful for having dangerous jobs? It’s really interesting that for many of the white people in the communities in which migrants work, it’s a rite of passage for teenagers to do agricultural work, but they move on to other things afterward. Yet there is a tendency to think that it’s okay for migrant workers to be put in these appalling conditions year after year.  Both the Canadian government and the home countries of the workers promote the idea that they should feel blessed to have these jobs and that when workers talk about their rights, they’re engaging in bad behaviour.  One of the important things to point out about global capitalism is that workers are arriving in Canada because of the unemployment in their home countries that has been exacerbated by the neocolonial practices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. For instance, many of the workers in the farm worker program are former farmers from Jamaica whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. I think it is important to talk about these things in terms of context.

Adriana: The first thing I notice when I interact with the employers, government bureaucrats, or people with status, is that they don’t have any idea of why migrants are here in the first place. The idea that Canada is a much better country, so workers should be grateful to work here is a dominant one. Employers usually feel like this is a win-win program because they need the workforce and migrants need the money. There is zero analysis of the problems created in Mexico by, for example, the North American Free Trade Agreement. People don’t consider what the workers were doing before coming here. Most of them have been displaced from their own land. They were agricultural workers on their own farms and now they don’t have the land, or they were workers in factories that have shut down in Mexico because of free trade agreements. That aspect of the situation is completely ignored.

There is so much prejudice and ignorance, especially when you talk with employers. When they provide workers with horrible housing conditions (for example, placed beside garbage dumps), many employers say, “but this must be much better than in their countries.” How do some of the workers respond?  “Yes, we are poor, but we live with dignity.” We counter these discourses with our own discourse of dignity. Workers come here for particular reasons – such as forced migration – and they are human beings with rights and dignity. When we give presentations or do lobbying, we try to discuss the reasons why workers are here in the first place. These are people that had good conditions back home, but lost their land or their jobs.

Have you connected with activists working on similar issues in other countries? How do struggles in Canada compare internationally?

Adriana: We have connected with some people from the Chicano and Latino movements in Los Angeles and Arizona. The difference is that most of the workers we are working with are temporary. This is a big barrier for our organizing because next year they may not return: they might be in Ontario, in Manitoba, or in Québec. So, the continuity is disrupted. So we try to maintain a connection with other organizers in Canada. The US also has a bigger migrant worker population than Canada. That makes a huge difference because they have larger communities. There is little community support for migrant workers in Canada because they have little or no family here.

Because I am from Bolivia, and many people from Bolivia migrate to Argentina and Spain to work, I am in contact with some of them. Bolivians living in Argentina face more or less the same issues as Mexicans here in Canada, the US, or in Spain. The situations are similar in the sense that people’s precarity of status is the main barrier to them speaking out. The lack of community for Bolivian workers in Spain is similar to the experience of Mexicans here in Canada.

Tess: We’ve worked a lot with other allies – academics, students, workers in the factories, other migrant groups, and the churches. The changes that we are working towards are part of broader changes we need to make to society. It’s important to work with other migrant workers outside of Canada because, for example, Japan has copied Canada’s live-in caregiver program and the United States is also copying the program. It’s important that other people know about the problems with the program and build resistance wherever they may be.

Evelyn: We have allies in other countries, and that is why our work is local, national and international in scope. International work is important because we are anti-imperialist and focus on the root causes of migration. PINAY is a member of Migrante International, an umbrella organization of Filipino groups outside the Philippines. They lobby government for the protection of overseas Filipino workers. There are also groups organized in other countries, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where Filipino overseas workers are concentrated.

Nandita Sharma argues in her book Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2006) that the dominant notion of “home” needs to be disrupted – that we need to challenge ideas that result in the belonging of some and non-belonging of others. Do you think that Sharma’s argument is useful for your work?

Adriana: It’s useful in the sense that when we talk about workers that come here regularly over a long period of time, Canada pretty much becomes their home. They have built connections with the community, even though it’s sometimes difficult because they may rotate between different provinces. Some of them have two families: a family in Mexico that they left behind and a family here. So in that sense I think the notion of home that Sharma is challenging is particularly important. Migration is an old phenomenon. Even if we lived in a perfect world with no capitalism and no free trade agreements, there would be migration. So we have to face it. The notion of “this is our home” and “this is not our home” is an official category used to justify the exclusions perpetuated against migrant populations. Everybody has the right to make home wherever they want. What is preventing people from doing that is a management of migration that justifies exploitation and favours the interests of the business sector.

Tess: The concepts of family and home are so entangled. We live our struggles both here and in our own county. And so the concept of home transcends a narrow definition. What we hope for is fundamental change so that it will no longer be necessary to leave home, and if you do, it will not be because you’ve been forced to. If the conditions of our country were better, we wouldn’t be here. If the present system does not change fundamentally, it won’t be sustainable. Without sustainability in your own country then this migration will continue.

Again, taking Sharma’s analysis into account, how do you think that migrant worker issues fit within an anti-colonial framework? How does your work connect with struggles of indigenous communities, either here in Canada or elsewhere?

Adriana: The history of colonization in this country started with the oppression of the native population, but this legacy of colonialism also underlies immigration policies and temporary worker programs. So, in that sense, the struggle of indigenous people here, along with the struggle of the migrant workers, is to achieve self-determination, the right of free mobility and basic rights. There are many parallels between indigenous struggles and migrant worker struggles.

The indigenous here are suffering displacement from their land, which is taken by transnational corporations. In BC, for example, indigenous communities are being displaced by development for the Olympics and the forestry companies. It is a similar story for migrant workers. They are also displaced from their land and pushed into the north. So, in that sense, we can connect these struggles. There are many indigenous people amongst the migrant worker population, for example those who come from Chiapas. So, when we tell them about the indigenous struggle here, the workers open their eyes and say, “Oh, we didn’t know that this was happening here, that we share the same history.” Connecting those struggles and those histories, as well as connecting with the struggle of other immigrant communities, is our role. For example, it has traditionally been Punjabis who have been working on the farms in BC. Even though they have permanent status, their work is very racialized. So they share many commonalities of struggle with migrant workers.

Where does the struggle need to go from here?

Chris: First, we have to consider the transnational nature of organizing. It can’t just happen in Canada. It has to happen in the workers’ home countries as well. Second, we have to get past paternalism. Migrant workers must be the ones at the forefront of the struggle. This is something that has been lacking in the organizing that has taken place. Third, grassroots groups need to dialogue with one another about their strategies, and about the successes and the defeats they have experienced. Building a base among migrant workers – whether sex trade workers, agricultural workers, LCP workers, non-status workers – is key to challenging and exerting power against both employers and the Canadian state. Organizations like J4MW are attempting to connect with migrant rights groups internationally to learn from their experiences. While there is a lot of space to develop international work, we also need to keep building our base and collective power. That, for me, is fundamental. This type of organizing is painstakingly slow.

Aylwin: Learning and evolving is crucial. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to work with migrant workers without the thorough orientation I had with the Frontier College program. Laws and programs are constantly changing, and as an organization we need to keep up with that and factor it into our work. In the US, a lot of support for migrant farm workers has come from people in the Mexican-American community, many of whom have experienced the hardships of farm work themselves. Most of Student Action with Farmworkers’ interns are from farm worker families. When farm workers and their loved ones can be there to drive the movement forward, a lot can happen. That’s not possible with the agricultural work program in Canada because there’s no path to settlement. The Live-in Caregiver Program, for all its faults, at least has a provision for that. That is something that we can push for.

Given the many shortcomings of the labour movement in this country, why do you think it’s strategically important to put your energy into migrant worker organizing right now?

Evelyn: Community initiative in this area is very strategic. Presently, migrant workers are one of the most oppressed and exploited group in Canada. Through our organizing work with other migrant workers, we not only promote the rights and welfare of Filipino workers but we also contribute to the advancement of the Canadian working class as a whole.

Aylwin: We know that union membership has been on the decline in Canada. We also know that, throughout history, Canadian business and the Canadian government have sought to create an underclass of workers whose labour they can exploit more intensely and use to undercut the demands of all workers. Sometimes it’s more prevalent than others, and right now it’s an expanding phenomenon. In order to stay strong, unions need to work hard at organizing workplaces where there are a lot of immigrant and migrant workers. And to do that they need to win their trust by listening to them and responding to their needs. J4MW began as a group because we started seeing so many migrant agricultural workers. Now the agricultural model is being replicated and expanded in dozens of industries, from meatpacking to domestic work to stand-up comedians (I’m not kidding!). That affects everyone’s rights at work.

Chris: The labour movement is at a critical juncture in its history. With the rising number of temporary foreign workers and the lack of a concerted strategy to address the concerns of the tens of thousands of non-status workers, the time is ripe for us to challenge policies and priorities. There has to be an ongoing struggle to challenge the dominant assumptions about who workers are (i.e. white, male, Canadian-born, heterosexual, etc.).  Each of us has been doing this work for many years. We were once voices in the wilderness speaking about the plight of migrant agricultural workers and few people were interested in putting this issue at the top of the labour agenda. But with the rise of temporary foreign worker programs, more labour unions have come to realize the importance of this issue.

Community organizations and grassroots collectives have a pivotal role to play in challenging the organizing methods and the public positions that unions adopt with respect to migrant workers. Mainstream non-governmental organizations, academics,  labour unions, and community groups may attempt to silence the voices of organizations like J4MW, but it is important that we continue to push the envelop on immigration, organizing, and access to entitlements such as Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan. We need to be engaged in these debates, whether or not the mainstream welcomes our involvement.  One of our key roles is to put pressure on the labour movement to ensure that the demands of migrant workers are met. We need to be there to support migrant workers and non-status workers in exerting their collective strength. The question for me will always be: Will the labour unions learn from their mistakes or will they repeat them?