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Give the workers rights! (Just not to migrant workers though)

| March 13, 2014
Photo: Justice for Migrant Workers Facebook page

Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour has taken to the airwaves to garner support for increasing the minimum wage to $13. A modest goal that if accomplished would lift thousands of workers out of poverty, a right move no doubt. In the same vein however, Sinclair and other labour leaders are calling for the elimination of the TFW workers program. Excluding temporary foreign workers from Canada will not ensure decent work or decent lives for anyone. What is needed is progressive legislation, proactive enforcement and creating mechanisms where all workers can enforce their rights rather than simply excluding the most vulnerable workers.

In a recent TV interview on Global BC (Unfiltered with Jill Crop), Sinclair argued that "the bottom line is that they [Canadian employers] are using those temporary workers to depress wages for Canadians, and that is the whole strategy to flood the labour market with people from other countries and forced down the wages." He ended the discussion by arguing that we need to put British Colombians to work first and not foreign workers.

Labour leaders like Sinclair are preaching the same xenophobic discourse of yester-years, maybe the motivation for this anti-immigrant rhetoric is unintended and we could give Sinclair the benefit of the doubt; however the consequences of such discourses are quite harmful for migrant workers and their families, and let's be clear, it is not a progressive move on the struggles for migrant rights.

Temporary Foreign Workers are migrants, mostly racialized people who are unable to come to Canada through any other immigration stream. Arguing to shut down the program is an argument to exclude racialized workers, which echoes the xenophobic discourse of the past where it is easier to blame migrant workers rather than address the economic, legal, social and political factors that lead to the exploitation of both Canadians and migrants.

Eliminating temporary foreign workers will not get to the heart of the matter. Ensuring genuine participation and the needs of all workers regardless of their immigration status, race and nationality should be the premises that guide the strategies and campaigns of the labour movement if they want to build authentic workers solidarity. As long as we try to appeal to people's nationalist sentiments by attacking migrants, we will not be better than the unions that led the Chinatown riots in 1908 against Chinese migrant workers.

Migrant workers deserve protections not (intended or unintended) xenophobic accusations from those who purport to represent workers. Improving employment standards protection to prevent recruitment fees and equal access to health care, lobbying for permanent immigration status of migrant workers instead of deporting them in order to 'protect them' from exploitation[1], should be rallying cries. These are the issues that should have been raised during the meeting with the Premier. Rather than call for the elimination of migrant workers, Sinclair should have taken the time to raise the concerns identified by migrant workers and advocates such as those experiences faced by both Lara and Reynaldo.

Lara, a migrant worker from the Philippines arrived in Canada, seeking to make a better life for her children. Working originally in southwestern, Ontario, Lara's experiences under the temporary foreign worker program can be described as unjust and inhumane. Subjected to exorbitant recruitment fees, unlivable housing conditions and dangerous working conditions, Lara desired change. Knowing that the temporary foreign worker program operated in a grey area, Lara demanded that new laws be developed banning recruitment fees as well as ensuring employers provided decent accommodations for all migrant workers. Lara's employer and recruiter were fearful of the growing influence that Lara was having amongst her colleagues and within the greater community, and she was terminated.

Hearing of opportunities in B.C., Lara found work in the local service industry. Finding a job through a recruiter located in another province, Lara once again paid thousands of dollars to a recruiter to work at a minimum wage job. Seeing her friends being mistreated by this new recruiter, Lara, the fierce leader she is, wanted to stop the bullying that her friends endured. Despite B.C.'s laws banning recruitment fees, the recruiter was untouchable because their business was located in another province. Furthermore, current B.C. legislation does not capture the often cosy relationship that exists between employers and recruiters. Facing pressure from the recruiter and fearful that his supply of indentured labour would end, the employer terminated Lara because he deemed her a trouble maker.

Reynaldo, a migrant worker from Mexico, was employed at a B.C. greenhouse. The 36 year old and father of four, a diligent and hard worker, took pride at being a farm worker and loyal worker to his Canadian employer. Working in B.C. greenhouses over the past eight seasons, Reynaldo was constantly exposed to chemicals and pesticides. One day while at work, he fainted. Reynaldo at least was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer though difficult to scientifically prove, his doctor was sure that his cancer was a consequence of years of pesticide exposure and strenuous type of work. As soon as his limited private insurance ended he was sent back to Mexico with no workers' compensation for permanent disability or any other type of support. Within three weeks he was sent home to Mexico and in less than a year he was dead. By neither not receiving adequate medical attention, nor support from the provinces workers compensation system.

There is no disagreement that migrant workers are subjected to differential treatment and are one of the main targets of economic exploitation in Canada. However where disagreement occurs is on what steps should be taken to address the injustices they face while working in Canada. For us, we believe that the only way to address the exploitation faced by migrant workers is to remove the legal barriers they face while working and living in Canada. This means providing workers with permanent residency, ensuring migrant workers have equal access to social entitlements such as healthcare and education, reforming labour laws so that there is a level playing field between workers and employers. Finally all workers in B.C. should be provided with the right to work without fear of reprisals for exerting their rights coupled with the right to organize and bargain collectively. Doing so will take away employers' ability to pit one group of workers against another and ensure justice for all workers, not just those deemed citizens.

However, this view is not shared by all. Sinclair and others have chosen a more perilous path resembling the past century demanding the elimination of so called low wage migrant workers who are accused of stealing Canadian jobs and depressing wages. One cannot help to feel a sense of déjà vu listening to these 'progressives' engage in the age old mantra of demonizing the 'foreigner.' Today's arguments for excluding migrant workers are eerily reminiscent or arguments used by labour leaders over 100 years ago used to exclude Asian workers because immigrant workers seen to be a threat to native born workers.

We are alarmed by the current strategy undertaken by the B.C. labour movement as they try to increase the minimum wage. Rather than addressing the weakness of labour laws, the absence of enforcement and the declining ability of workers to bargain collectively, B.C. labour is employing conservative strategies of pitting low wage British Colombians against low wage migrant workers. Migrant workers not having any electoral clout are an easy wedge issue to try to organize around. Like the Chinese and South Asian workers at the turn of the past century it's easy to attack the most vulnerable rather than address the structural reasons that lead to exploitation.

If there is one lesson that we have learnt from history, a divided working class will reap benefits for no one. Rather than demonize migrant workers as the labour market's bogeyman, we should support migrant workers right to organize so they can build strength and collective power. We need not repeat the mistakes of the past. Workers like Lara and Reynaldo deserve protections as much as their Canadian counterparts. Fairness, dignity, respect and justice should be accorded to all workers irrespective of status. If we are serious about stopping the rise in precarious and dangerous work, then we need to adopt inclusive practices so that all workers can benefit from the fruits of their labour.


Chris Ramsaroop and Adriana Paz are organizers with Justice for Migrant Workers.

Photo: Justice for Migrant Workers Facebook page

 [1] On January of 2012 Two unions are challenging the government's decision to allow HD Mining to bring about 200 Chinese miners to work in northern B.C., rather than hire Canadians.



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