May Day: Immigrant rights are workers' rights

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To fight back against a globalized austerity drive, labour and migrant justice movements will need to unite, recovering the spirit of Haymarket and the Winnipeg General Strike. This is the second in a two-part series previewing International Workers Day, May 1. Part I, tracing the roots of May Day, can be read here.

Immigration policy as austerity

While racialized workers with less precarious immigration status are the last hired, first fired, while many of us remain in temporary non-unionized jobs and without services, a new slew of immigration policies have emerged to make immigrant workers of colour even more precarious.

Under the Harper government, citizenship rejection has doubled, 83,382 people have been deported and 72,000 arbitrarily detained, temporary workers have overtaken permanent residents, refugee acceptances has decreased by 25 per cent, and there is a moratorium on sponsoring parents and grandparents.

The result has been deadly. On April 24, the tale of Veronica Castro, a 41-year-old Mexican refugee claimant hit the news media. She was denied refugee status in Canada, kept in a maximum-security prison, and then deported. She was beaten to death in the border state of Coahuila while trying to escape Mexico again.

These stories of death by deportation are not new. In October 2009, the Toronto Star reported the murder of Grise in Mexico, a 24-year-old woman who had applied for and been refused refugee status in Canada twice, in 2004 and 2008. Under Bill C-31, with countries like Mexico unilaterally designated as 'safe', deportation to extreme violence, persecution and death will become tragically ordinary.


Migrant workers hit the headlines again in Canada in February 2012, when 10 migrants were killed and three gravely injured in Southwestern Ontario after a flatbed truck slammed into the passenger van that all 13 workers -- aged 19 to 55 -- had been crammed into. This all too common practice of transporting migrant farm workers between barns in passenger vans is known to be dangerous and was subject to legal regulation in California a decade ago.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) that these workers came under, exists to maximize profits for employers by getting migrants to work for lower wages under insecure, gruelling working conditions. Complain or assert your rights and face deportation. Get sick, get deported. Now this same logic is extending into the refugee and family reunification system.

On December 24, 2009, four workers in Toronto - not a part of the TFWP, but still migrants without full status -- Alexander Bondorev, Aleksey Blumberg, Fayzullo Fazilov and Vladimir Korostin -- fell to their deaths after the scaffolding they were working on collapsed, splitting in half. A fifth worker, Dilshod Marupov, sustained severe injuries.

Under austerity era policies such tragedies are bound to increase. Refugee claimants are arriving in Canada in the thousands, living in the country for two to three years, without full status, and almost 60 per cent are having their refugee claim -- and thus their access to status -- denied. It is within this context that we see many asylum seekers in Canada existing as migrant workers similarly exploited by bad bosses.

Under the so-called Balanced Refugee Reform Act, due to come into force in June 2012, claimants will be processed differently based on their countries of citizenship, rather than their individual contexts of abuse and violence. As such, even more asylum seekers will live as temporary workers and have to make the difficult decision to live without status or leave.

Under new immigration policies, spouses of citizens, previously granted permanent residency and then citizenship will now gain conditional-permanent residence. This means that spouses in Canada will have temporary status for two years -- a status subject to revocation.

Bill C-31, dubbed the Refugee Exclusion Act, amongst its many heinous decrees, will give the government the ability to take away a refugee's permanent residency simply by declaring their home countries safe. If this Bill passes, the Canadian permanent refugee system, as its known today, will end. It will also impose mandatory detention for a minimum of one year on all asylum seekers 'designated' by the Minister.

In the 2012 Federal budget, Harper proposed simply returning all immigration applications filed prior to 2008. This would, in essence, arbitrary cut nearly 200,000 people off the queue of people who have waiting for immigration status for years.

On April 25, the Tories announced that refugee claimants in Canada will no longer be allowed to access supplemental coverage under the Interim Federal Health Program and refugee claimants coming from countries considered 'safe' as well as rejected refugee claimants who are in the process of appeal will be denied even the most basic of medical support. That same day, to the delight of its corporate friends, the Tories announced that employers would now be allowed to pay workers that come to Canada through the TFWP 15 per cent less than the average wage.

Collectively, these policies entrench a system of racist exploitation while ballooning the number of workers that have little, if any, access to basic labour, civil and human rights. These are workers who pay into public services, but cannot access them -- workers who can be deported at the whim of employers and government officials.

Immigrant rights are workers rights

In the midst of increasingly brazen, concerted attacks here in Canada and globally under governments pushing austerity agendas, it becomes absolutely imperative that we understand the struggle for migrant rights as a struggle for worker rights. Just as in Haymarket and Winnipeg, a concerted response to austerity will have to be rooted in im/migrant communities.

U.S. labour organizer and immigrant rights activist David Bacon notes how unions and the Occupy movement in the U.S. are already making the connections. United Service Workers West/SEIU is a union that organized a march in the fall of 2011 to a detention centre in San Diego. The march was led by immigrant janitors as part of Occupy ICE -- the Immigration and Custom Enforcement Agency responsible for mass deportations in the U.S.

Bacon notes, "An alliance of unions, immigrants and Occupiers has great potential strength, not just in numbers, but also in the exchange of ideas and tactics. The vision of Occupy -- the 99 per cent vs. the 1 per cent -- has enormous support among immigrants and unions... This powerful message blows away illusions that higher-paid workers have more in common with stockbrokers than with immigrants labouring at minimum wage, or unemployed young people on the streets of African American ghettos or Latino barrios."

Such alliances are particularly important in the context of the rise of the right-wing globally. Just two weeks ago, the anti-immigrant National Front party in France won 17.9 per cent of the vote in the presidential elections. The ultra-nationalist right-wing party Golden Dawn is set to enter the Greek Parliament and violent Islamophobia has emerged in multiple cases, one of most current and public examples being the shooting rampage carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.

On this side of the pond, we see governments advancing blatantly racist policies (one example among many is the recently inaugurated policy that denies public services to women wearing the burqa) while violent hate gangs like the Neo-Nazi group 'Blood and Honour' are on the rise in cities across the country (a group that, just this past month, saw two of its leaders arrested in Edmonton for violently attacking two Sikh men). At such a time, the importance of connecting our struggles cannot be overstated.

In 2006, over two million people, mostly immigrants, took to the streets in the United States reclaiming May Day for the immigrant working class. Connecting the long history of May Day as a day of celebration and action by people denied status and basic rights, May Day 2006 re-focused the terrain of struggle to some of the most marginalized portions of the working class.

Reflecting on this historic Immigrant General Strike, also known as the "Day Without Immigrants" in the U.S., James Green notes, "Haymarket resonates today more than it has at any other time in recent years. The original Haymarket affair of 1886 was part and parcel of a massive, national May Day rally and strike led, by and large, by America's immigrant workers... In the time of the Haymarket affair, anti-immigrant nationalists sowed the seeds of chauvinism through labour market exclusion; shorter-hours activists sustained a vision of solidarity without borders. Where employers expected docile immigrant bodies, immigrant bodies responded with May Day militancy. Today, immigrant rights activists have broken decisively with employers and reinvigorated the tradition of May Day militancy."

Here in Canada, this link between immigrants' rights as workers' rights is manifest in and emboldened by the work of migrant justice groups like Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), Caregivers Action Centre, No One Is Illegal, Migrante and the Migrant Worker's Alliance for Change (MWAC).

In 2010, J4MW organized a historical march in which over 150 migrant workers and their allies walked over 50km from Leamington to Windsor to demand justice, respect and dignity for the hundreds of thousands employed under Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.

Hundreds undertook the Plgrimage to Freedom: Breaking the Chains of Indentureship caravan again the following year. No One Is Illegal groups across the country, including in Toronto, very recently mounted coordinated actions at Conservative MP offices on Refugee Rights Day, April 4, 2012, against Bill C-31. The Workers Action Centre's 'Stop Wage Theft' campaign makes a key demand for equal status and protection for all workers, regardless of immigration status.

Importantly, this work is also being taken on and supported by unions across Canada. Several unions including CUPE, CUPW, CAW and OPSEU have come out to demand full rights for undocumented and migrant workers and to call for status for all. Much still needs to be done. Racism pervades progressive institutions just as it does regressive ones. Resolutions on the floor have not always translated into actions on the street. Creating space for immigrant voices and experiences requires a profound transformation. Citizenship status even within immigrant communities has served as a profound divide-and-rule tactic, with the ideology of 'slam the door behind me' allowing the Conservatives to make inroads into people of colour communities.

In an unprecedented collaboration, this upcoming May Day in Toronto is being jointly organized by Occupy-Toronto, No One Is Illegal-Toronto and the May 1st Movement. The march has been endorsed by over 40 organizations including many labour unions.

May Day 2012 heralds an opportunity to build the alliances necessary to resurrect Haymarket and Winnipeg once more, for those with and without status, to once again rise up together for justice and dignity, for Status for All, with the recognition that the struggle for immigrants' rights is a struggle for workers' rights.

Dr Abeer Majeed, Syed Hussan & Mary-Elizabeth Dill are researchers, writers and activists involved in migrant justice, health care, labour rights, feminist and Indigenous sovereignty movements in Toronto. 

For details of Toronto's May Day 2012, check out

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