So You Think You Know Your Rights?

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So You Think You Know Your Rights?

“Chinatown: Ten hours’ work for just $25 a day”, blared the headline of a Toronto Star article, July 23, 2010. The article by Nicholas Keung, is a terrible but familiar story of immigrant workers being intensively exploited in a country where the labour movement has won some rights

A Chinese woman paid $400 deposit to work at a nail salon and received $25 a day for ten hours’ work, seven days a week. “I don’t know any English and I had no idea what my rights were. Workers do not have a lot of rights where I come from”, she said. This was one of many stories of abuse discovered on a survey conducted by the Chinese Interagency Network of Greater Toronto, an umbrella group of thirty-three social and health agencies serving the Chinese community. The survey found that one in five know what the maximum hours of work are in Ontario and sixty-six per cent of those interviewed were unaware of overtime and holiday pay. Forty per cent did not know the minimum wage or that they were protected by labour laws if they do not have an employment contract. More than five hundred people were approached for the survey but most declined to respond for fear of their employer finding out and firing them. This would render Ontario’s proposed legislation, Bill 68, which would give workers the right to confront their employers with concerns before filing a complaint with the Ministry of Labour virtually useless. It also makes a mockery of the Ontario Workers’ Rights Act, which stipulates the minimum hourly wage at $10.25; maximum hours at 48; eligibility for overtime pay after 44 hours; overtime pay rates at 1.5 times the base pay; yearly paid holiday of two weeks at 4% of the annual salary. Many migrant workers, coming from countries where workers have no rights, are ignorant of Ontario’s legislation, and many who do know are intimidated into not taking any action for fear of dismissal. It’s all about survival.

Hui-min Li, who did respond to the survey, said he worked in a Chinese-owned auto parts factory for eight years before the company laid off its workers and moved to Mexico. The Shanghai immigrant was owed $8 000 in severance pay. According to Li, “It was not unusual for us to work seventy hours a week. We worked from 8am to 1am. The boss wouldn’t let you go until you finished your work.”

That some workers in major industrialized countries are exploited as intensely as the working class during the industrial revolution should surprise no one. If capitalism can take advantage of a worker’s ignorance and fear thereby extracting more profit, they will. In the final analysis, under capitalism, profit rules. What should surprise us, though, is any attempt to solve the problem within capitalism. The survey calls for stronger workplace audits and an outreach program to educate newcomers about their rights, including enrollment in English classes. This is commendable as far as it goes. The working class must protect their rights re working conditions, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Many workers do know their rights and insist on them in Canada, and elsewhere, and still they are exploited, though perhaps not so intensely, and still have fears and insecurities. It would, then, be better to advocate a society where exploitation, profits, ignorance, or fear in the workplace, do not exist at all.

Socialist Party of Canada


Sean in Ottawa

This raises an important point that ought to be connected: with all the self serving political ads out there on everything from the stimulus money to whatever the government has done for you, there is terribly little of the advertising by governments spent on what government advertising is supposed to be for: public information.

Much of this problem ought to be mitigated by advertising including in minority language media and by material given to people when they get papers to work here. Government ought to provide a welcome "package" of information to people who come to Canada including information about worker's rights, without that, there is good reason to understand why workers could presume they have no rights.

Finally, there is another wider lesson here. Sure the extremes are obvious but most Canadian workers do not fully understand their rights and can be easily convinced that their understandings are wrong by unscrupulous employers. The only complete solution to this kind of thing is very widespread unionization.

I have spoken with many people who are against unions because they feel that union workers are elites. Few are aware that most union leaders agree with them-- as most unions are very much advocating that all workers ought to belong to a union.

The best solution could be to say that every workplace of more than say ought to have a labour representative in contact with the labour movement for information and every worker should belong to a union.