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Without migrant and immigrant workers at its centre, there's no future for organized labour

New Town restaurant in Chinatown, Vancouver, B.C.

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If the labour movement in Canada is to remain relevant and keep its ability to push progressive politics it needs to take organizing and supporting immigrant workers much more seriously.

A recent report entitled Sweet and Sour that surveyed the experiences of nearly 200 Chinese immigrant restaurant workers in the GTA area serves as a disturbing illustration of the continued disconnect between immigrant workers and legally mandated labour standards.

Of those surveyed some statistics are worth repeating: 43 per cent were paid less than minimum wage, 52 per cent did not receive overtime pay, 61 per cent did not receive public holiday pay and more than 20 per cent of respondents were owed wages.

These statistics indicate the extreme conditions of exploitation faced by immigrant workers in this community and this sector, but those of us with understanding of immigrant communities know that highly exploitive working conditions such as these do not stand alone, rather they are in fact widespread and pervasive across sectors and throughout our communities. 

No, exploitation is not "cultural"

Those who suggest that it is "cultural" reasons that explain the exploitive working conditions faced by immigrant workers largely ignore the fact that it is systemic economic and political conditions (de-credentialization, language discrimination, racism and so on) working in combination that explain why immigrant workers are channeled into oversaturated and destructively competitive ethnic enclaves and the associated highly exploitive working conditions they spawn.

To address such conditions, a combination of improving the efficacy of our labour laws and community organizing in our respective immigrant communities is essential. A particularly striking illustration of this in the Sweet and Sour report is that conditions have remained relatively the same from a similar study done 30 years ago.

Conditions will likely remain the same for 30 more years until there is sustained political organizing to ensure labour laws are able to protect all workers including vulnerable immigrant workers -- and until there is sustained community organizing efforts to empower immigrant workers as political actors.

The movement for "15 and Fairness" represents such an opportunity.

The Importance of The Fight for 15 and Fairness for Immigrant Workers

Immigrant workers have long felt that the politics of mainstream Canada simply do not apply to them. As one restaurant worker in the report notes: "Regarding the $15 campaign, even if the minimum wage is raised to $20 per hour, Chinese restaurant owners would still pay Chinese restaurant workers under minimum wage."

While it is hard to imagine a situation where raising the minimum wage to $15 would not likewise increase the wages of restaurant workers in the report, the sentiment emphasizes the necessity of ensuring that labour laws do in fact matter.

This is why in addition to calling for a raise in the minimum, the $15 and Fairness campaign calls for labour laws that work and labour laws that apply to everyone. This means employment standards that offer greater protection for vulnerable workers, more proactive enforcement to deter labour violations and more efficient and effective claims processes that allow workers to recuperate unpaid wages from non-law abiding employers.

All of these implementations can serve as ways to address the issues faced by the restaurant workers profiled in the Sweet and Sour report and the swathes of immigrant workers who labour under similar conditions. 

Beyond legislative changes to the employment standards, the $15 and Fairness movement also represents a shift in the culture labour politics; one that goes beyond the more established practices such collective bargaining for unionized worker to one where all workers deserve protection and respect.

Such politics will appeal to immigrant workers and their communities and if implemented will demonstrate to them that just because they labour in the margins, they will nonetheless receive the same protections that workers in the mainstream have.

Groundbreaking work around immigrant organizing from our neighbours to the south are instructive of the range of possibilities. In San Francisco for example, where strong employment enforcements standards have been fought for and won, immigrant organizing community agencies have utilized employment standards as way of not only bettering the conditions of workers through wage theft claims but also as a tool in building broad-base multi-racial progressive politics.

Forms of immigrant community organizing with similar objectives would have tremendous impact in the political landscape of metropolitan Canada.

No Future for Labour without Real Solidarity with Immigrants and Migrants

As organized labour and the political left in the U.S has been compelled to recognize in the past decades, often under the threat of extinction, the im/migrant issue is the issue and pivot point for labour politics in North America.

Given the immigration trends in Canada, demographic projections of the metropolitan workforce will be increasingly heavily composed of immigrants. Labour's ability to engage these racialized immigrant workers has wide-ranging implications.

The strategic mobilizations of unions in the U.S reflect this awareness. In the Fight for $15 which targets fast food and service sector workers where immigrant and racialized workers are heavily represented, SEIU alone has spent $20 million in 2015. Meanwhile in Canada, the Fight for $15 and Fairness is scrambling to cover the costs of basic campaign costs and material. Significantly greater resources are needed to close the gap between workers' appetite for action and the campaign's ability to reach the many workers who want to get involved.

An infusion of financial resources would make a tremendous difference to the campaign's ability to grow these all-important networks of union and non-union workers across Ontario and, especially, to activate workers in those sectors of the economy that are hard for unions to organize and where racialized and immigrant workers are overrepresented. 

The Ontario Federation of Labour's "Make it Fair" campaign -- as organized labour's contribution to the Fight for $15 and Fairness -- is a promising development. This is especially so if, in addition to activating its own members, the OFL and its affiliates can help increase financial resources available for the Fight for $15 and Fairness workers' movement more generally.

In Canadian history, organized labour, like much of white Canada, has often acted in disregard and disdain towards immigrant workers, migrant workers and their communities. Supporting mobilizations like the Fight for $15 and Fairness which would affect all workers but especially marginalized immigrant workers, is not acts of charity, but rather a way to right the historical wrongs of racist immigration and labour policies, their enduring consequences and contemporary manifestations.

Like supporting the call of migrant workers for status, supporting The Fight for $15 and Fairness is a step towards building genuine solidarity across racial and ethnic lines. 

Progressives of all stripes will also do well to recognize that organizing immigrant workers is not a stand alone issue, it creates the political space for a wide ranging set of progressive politics. To take on the task of organizing immigrant workers allows us to build the collective strength of labour and the left for the battles that we must fight in the years to come.

Justin Kong is involved in organizing around the Fight for 15 and Fairness and in the Chinese immigrant community in Toronto. He also studies sociology.

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Image: Flickr/Hubert Figuière

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