On Sunday June 8th Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW) in conjunction with the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre held a worker forum. We brought together migrant workers and non-union, out of work or under-employed low wage workers in Windsor/Essex to discuss the system of exploitation that affects all workers in varying degrees.
Over food and after introductions, J4MW organizer Chris Ramsaroop led a discussion on the globalized workplace. Workers were from Mexico, Indonesia, St Lucia, Jamaica, Burundi, Ethiopia and Windsor/Essex. Truly, the workers of the world united for a couple of hours at the workers’ centre!
The discussion began with a description of words used by politicians and corporations; words like austerity, tax cuts, restructuring, privatization, globalization, and streamlining. Workers discussed how labour and immigration policies are formulated using language meant to hide the damage done to social relationships in the workplace and society at large. For example, wealthy greenhouse growers give excess food away to food banks while they claim a healthy tax break.
Workers also reflected on the causes of migrant labour where local economies are subsumed to the needs of the global economy. Migrant workers, perhaps especially Mexican workers, are unable to find work in at home because of free trade agreements that sacrifice local farming for low wage manufacturing plants that feed consumer needs in North America. Mexican workers themselves become a commodity as cheap labour right in our backyard.
Workers also discussed the need for the complete overhaul of labour and immigration laws where the right to work for a living wage and other benefits should be extended to ALL workers, and a route to full citizenship should be guaranteed for all who want to immigrate and become full citizens of Canada.
What was exciting about this gathering was the mix of workers: temporary foreign workers in the country under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), and local workers either born in Canada or established immigrants with full citizenship. The workers discovered that the power imbalance in their workplaces, and their resulting struggles, were what they had in common. The workers with citizenship described the power imbalance they face in non-union manufacturing plants and having to hold down multiple minimum wage jobs that still leave them in poverty and precariousness. The foreign workers risk deportation if they try to challenge inequality, and Canadian workers risk being easily dismissed, a dire consequence in Windsor/Essex with high unemployment, if they speak out or try to organize in the workplace.
The SAWP workers described facing exploitation, isolation, and constant attacks on their dignity, both in their workplaces and in the communities in which they live. One Mexican worker described being subject to a racist attack when he was hit by a bottle in downtown Leamington thrown by locals. Racist attacks such as this are common occurances. A worker originally from St Lucia described his battle against racism and how he won a Human Rights complaint against his former employer.
The workers engaged in a frank discussion on how foreign workers are stereotyped, where if they are in agriculture the perception is that is all they are good for. The foreign workers are held in servitude to one employer and have no mobility or right to seek other employment. It is the constructed power imbalance that all non-union workers face that is the feature most common between Canadian and foreign workers.
Where Latin and Asian workers are held in servitude in agricultural work, Canadian workers of colour, and most common, female workers of colour, face hurdles in the workplace. A Windsor citizen, an established immigrant from Ethiopia, experienced bullying and harassment when she sought a promotion to a job that paid 50 cents per hour more. She observed this happening to others over almost 20 years on the job. Her dignity was assaulted simply because supervisors thought she was stepping out of place. She discovered he has little recourse under existing labour laws to challenge the employer.
An Essex area worker was dismissed from his job even as the employer hired temporary foreign workers from Tunisia – an allegation the employer denied in the media, yet the worker talked at length with the Tunisian workers. Even with his dismissal and that of several others, he knows the fault does not lie with the foreign workers, rather with policy makers and unscrupulous employers.
As the forum wound down the workers concluded that sharing stories was key to building understanding and solidarity. They were also aware that sharing stories more broadly would require speaking to the media which has its own logic in slanting stories in ways that continue the stereotyping of workers, and especially foreign workers, as passive victims powerless to change their circumstances.
But the workers revealed they are well aware of their circumstances and well aware that their circumstances are the result of policy – deliberate choices – by those in power. Resistance and the will to change policy is the ultimate goal of meetings like this, and the need to challenge the dominat theme of victimhood requires that workers get to tell their stories their way. The workers were determined to follow-up this successful meeting with a planned get together in Leamington on July 13th.
For a couple of hours over food and dialogue workers from around the world were on equal terms in the workers’ centre, a space that is meant as a hub for education, advocacy, information sharing, safety, and relationship building. Such a hub can help workers counter the neo-liberal global economic framework of systemic inequality, injustice and the de-basement of social relationships created and maintained by corporate leaders and their political allies.
Workers can and must be the leaders of change by transcending structural inequality and finding common ground.
En solidarité !
In Solidarity !