Rally demands universal rights for migrant workers

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Farm workers, care workers, migrant rights groups and anti-racism activists marched in June to call attention to the plight of Canada's temporary foreign workers. Photo: Marites Sison

Omar Walcot took a day off from his work as a fruit picker in Simcoe, Ontario, on Sunday, June 16, to join hundreds of other farm labourers, care workers and anti-racism activists who marched on the streets of downtown Toronto to call attention to the plight of all migrant workers across Canada.  

Organized by the Migrant Rights Network and Migrant Workers Alliance for Change,  the rally demanded decent work, landed status upon arrival, access to universal services, and an end to discrimination and displacement of workers who arrive in the country under the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. Protesters also called for a $15 minimum wage, full labour rights for all and no-employer specific and time-limited work permits.

Similar protest actions -- held on International Domestic Worker Day and Father's Day -- were staged in 10 other cities across Canada, said organizers. 

"Today is Father's Day and my family isn't here," said Walcot, who left behind his wife Kevita and two daughters, Wayana (age 13) and Rutan (age 3), in Manchester, Jamaica. 

He became a migrant worker so he could provide for his family and give his children a good education, Walcot said in an interview. "I miss them. I talk to them (on the phone), but I can't hug them." 

Walcot has worked in Canada for 10 years as a seasonal worker. "I come up here for eight months and at the end of the farming season, I go back home," he said. "But, when we're home, we're not earning." Even though he pays taxes and employment insurance, as a TFW he doesn't have access to EI, as well as basic services like health care, he noted. 

Marchers were escorted by police as they wended their way from Grange Park to the Ontario Ministry of Labour office on University Avenue, before ending at the Immigration and Refugee Board headquarters on Victoria Street. 

Protesters carried "Unite Against Racism" banners and placards, as well as purple balloons, and staged a "die-in" on University Avenue to demonstrate the precarious nature of migrant work and the deaths that occur in unsafe job sites. 

Speakers noted that under Canada's current immigration policy, over two-thirds of migrants who arrive each year, or about 750,000 people, do not have access to healthcare, education, income support and labour support because of their temporary status. And yet, they said, TFWs pay municipal, sales and income taxes. 

In the lead up to the federal elections in October, protesters urged political parties to look into the plight of TFWs, "instead of using xenophobia to divide us."

Saying that Canada is not immune to nativism and right-wing populism, they urged Canadians to fight racism and Islamophobia. 

In a statement, the Migrant Rights Network said that hate crimes are up 47 per cent, while a recent survey showed that 42 per cent of Canadians believe there are too many non-white immigrants coming to Canada. It also noted that there are now over 300 active white supremacist organizations in Canada. 

"Politicians are, at worst, blaming migrants to win votes or, at best, paying lip service while enacting the same anti-migrant policies," said Syet Hussan of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. 

Protesters also marched past the offices of Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) on Dundas and Bay. Earlier in April, the premier of Ontario had cut 30 per cent, or $133 million from LAO's budget and prohibited it from using provincial money to provide legal aid to immigrants and refugees. 

"Here we stand in a spot of shame," said Johanna Macdonald of Parkdale Community Legal Services, who spoke when the march stopped momentarily.  On June 12, LAO had announced cuts in funding for several community legal services, including Parkdale Community Legal Services, which has helped poor immigrants and refugees for decades. "The cut is affecting us across the province. It is meant to silence what gives us voice," said MacDonald. The cuts mean it would be harder to fight eviction, harder to get social assistance and easier to deport people, she said. 

Walcot whose work includes picking apples and peaches and crushing fruits for juice, expressed the hope that marches such as this one he attended will help open up the eyes of people. 

Asked what he wants to tell Canadians, he replied: "To accept us and treat us like your own if you see me on the street. I'm just a worker here, but I look after your food. We're a part of you."

Marites N. Sison is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

Photo: Marites N. Sison

 
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