Organizing temporary foreign workers through worker-led associations
By Samantha Ponting
There are many reasons why labour unions have failed, on the whole, to build the collective power of migrant workers. Legislative restraints, transient workplaces, language barriers, and the geographical and social isolation of migrant workers make it difficult for trade unions to bridge divides.
The Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) is a hotbed for worker intimidation – the threat of deportation constantly lingers. The need for support and education is particularly urgent in workplaces where taking risks for one’s rights can have dire consequences.
Loic Malhaire and Enrique Llanes Iglesias are community organizers with the Immigration Workers’ Centre (IWC), an organization created in 2000 to defend the rights of immigrant workers with precarious work and immigration statuses.
Led largely by migrant workers for migrant workers, the IWC is uniting migrants across the province of Quebec to collectively defend their rights.
The IWC, based out of Montréal, is a unique organization in Canada – it aims to organize temporary foreign workers and temporary agency workers through a membership-based model. Led largely by migrant workers for migrant workers, the IWC is uniting migrants across the province of Quebec to collectively defend their rights.
With a focus on two major campaigns, the centre conducts outreach, case work, service provision, and mobilization.
“The first campaign is about temporary agency workers. These jobs are part of the local job market. Temporary agencies hire a lot of immigrant workers,” says Malhaire.
The IWC’s Temporary Agency Workers Association advocates for greater industry regulation for temp agencies, and for greater accountability measures for companies that use temporary agencies. It educates temporary workers about their rights and organizes these workers together.
The IWC’s Temporary Foreign Workers Association is a worker-led organization that organizes migrant workers in Quebec.
Listen to RankandFile.ca’s full interview with Loic Malhaire and Enrique Llanes Iglesias of the Immigrant Workers Centre:
Creating “new forms of defense”
Malhaire and Iglesias say that our current methods of mobilizing workers need to reflect the realities of precarious labour. IWC attempts to do this.
“We can observe that the federal government in Canada created many programs and many job statuses linked to immigration status that escape traditional protection of the unions,” says Malhaire.
“We are in front of new job statuses and we need to create new forms of defense,” he says.
In some provinces across the country, including Ontario, temporary foreign workers (TFWs) do not have the right to join unions. Five months ago, this right was established in Quebec for agricultural workers – the last sector to see the right to associate recognized for TFWs.
But these rights are again under threat. Iglesias says that the Quebec government is pursuing similar legislation adopted in Ontario. Through restricting collective bargaining rights, the TFWP uses immigration status as a tool to circumvent labour laws.
Isolation and abuse in the TFWP
In Quebec, the geographical and social isolation of TFWs in the agricultural sector poses additional barriers for organizing workers.
“The government obliges the employer to host the worker. So the workers have to stay at the workplace and live there. They are totally controlled by the employers in terms of mobility,” says Malhaire.
“If they want to go out of the property, they have to ask for permission to do it. We are talking about new forms of transitory slavery.”
Within and outside the agricultural sector, employers have routinely deprived workers of their official documents, taken away their passports, and searched their private mail. In some cases, TFWs have been coerced into signing contracts that surrender them to these procedures.
Iglesias says that employers will fine workers if they don’t follow orders. Fines are used as a penalty system, culminating in deportation. This regime of discipline is made possible through a lack of government regulation and through policies that facilitate these conditions for exploitation.
When migrant workers require interpreters, they are given interpreters hired by the company. When visiting doctors, workers are made particularly vulnerable, relying on the company’s interpreters to communicate workplace injuries and other health problems.
Recent Reforms to the Program
Iglesias says the Harper government’s recent reforms are “deepening and worsening problems.”
Among the major reforms instated this June include a 10 per cent cap on the number of low-skilled temporary foreign workers hired for a worksite, and an application fee increase from $275 to $1,000, paid by the employer per worker requested.
“What they are doing is not going to solve the problems of the temporary foreign workers here, nor the ones that are coming. It is not going to solve the problems of Canadian workers. It’s not going to make those jobs better paid, or with better working conditions.”
Malhaire says, “We can observe in our fieldwork with the centre that these kinds of fees are already charged by the employers to the workers, illegally, of course.”
“When the worker arrives to the workplace, he will do more hours unpaid. Rent will be higher as well.” He says, “We know that this $1000 will make the workers more vulnerable because they will pay this cost.”
“We are just starting to do this work. We don’t know the future, but we can be optimistic because we’ve gotten some good results, some good victories in terms of defense,” says Malhaire.
Iglesias cites the recent introduction of the right to association for TFWs in the agricultural sector in Quebec. Some of the IWC’s case work has had positive outcomes. Recently, the centre won a successful claim against a Montréal video game company that engaged in collective firings. This victory was achieved despite the fact that many of the immigrant workers had already been sent back to their home countries.
But “you cannot do it one by one,” affirms Iglesias.
About the organizers
Enrique Llanes Iglesias is an a staff person with the IWC’s Temporary Foreign Workers’ Association, and has worked in Canada as a Spanish Linguistic Tester for the video game industry as a temporary foreign worker. Loic Malhaire is a board member and volunteer organizer for the IWC.
Want to read more? See RankandFile.ca’s recent post Justice and solidarity with temporary foreign workers in Canada.