A history of migrant work in BC: Labour’s choice between exclusion and solidarity

By Daniel Tseghay

In the year of Vancouver’s incorporation as a city in 1886, industrial unionists formed a local branch of the Knights of Labor. The union, which sponsored the Asiatic Exclusion League, played a prominent role in the riot that erupted the following year. Three hundred white workers expressed their animosity towards the Chinese migrant labourers who they felt were taking Canadian jobs through their willingness to be paid less for more work. Occupying City Hall, they stormed through the city, pulling down shanties, burning the homes of Chinese residents, and ultimately sending them fleeing to New Westminster.

“White workers – ignoring the demonstrated willingness of early Chinese labourers to strike over job and pay discrimination – believed,” writes Kay Anderson in Vancouver’s Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, “that the “Chinese” were endowed as a category with the capacity to undersell more deserving labour.”

Rather than critiquing and challenging the bosses who profited from a system which paid some workers poorly, the Knights of Labor focused its attention on the migrant workers. In an 1886 resolution published by Vancouver News, the Knights of Labor committed to “avert the evil effects which are sure to follow wherever those miserly rice eaters locate” because “the employment of Chinese not only lowers the dignity of labour but is exceedingly injurious and detrimental to the best interests of the working class.”

Echoing this approach, in 1913, secretary of the Vancouver Trades of Labor Council, J.W. Wilkinson, explained that opposition to migrant workers in a time of scarcity was necessary. “We are working men and the only way we have of getting our livelihood is by selling ourselves from day to day,” he said. “[I]n the struggle for existence matters are very often reduced to the ethics of the jungle,” he said, justifying the attack on this class of workers.

But what makes this history particularly troubling is just how deeply it’s rooted itself. We are, it appears, seeing signs that things haven’t changed all that much in the labour movement.

In July, Irene Lanzinger, President of the BC Federation of Labour, penned an op-ed about the liquefied natural gas sector in the province. While expressing reservations, Lanzinger underscored that as long as the industry is in place, the workers should be primarily British Columbians. Lanzinger has taken onus with the fact that the recommendation to hire permanent residents first, rather than migrants in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), were ignored. The BC NDP, historically associated with the labour movement, shared this stance. In opposition to the LNG plan, they posted a meme to their facebook page:

This isn’t the first time the BCFED has opposed privileged permanent residents over temporary ones. They challenged the application to employ migrant workers on Vancuover’s Golden Ears Bridge, for instance, by saying that there are “Canadian workers for the job.”

Concerns about the program are, of course, very understandable. There has been an acceleration in the number of temporary work permits granted in recent years. Over the past decade, the number of temporary migrant workers has tripled from 101,100 to 300,210. Employers are employing more temporary workers and certainly undercutting permanent residents. The question, however, is how workers and unions decide to respond to this.

This refusal to interrogate the source of the division has brought many in the labour movement to a kind of crossroads. David McNally, in “Socialism or Protectionism?” lays out the options ahead of us. “Will Canadian labour treat Mexican workers as a threat to Canadian jobs – as opponents of free trade have done? Or will the labour movement publicize strikes of Mexican workers, raise funds on their behalf and take boycott action in their support?”

Our only choice, he suggests, is clear. “Nationalist politics…constitute an immediate danger to united action by Canadian labour – especially at a time when English Canadian nationalism (and its seamy, racist underside) is being used to scapegoat immigrants and refugees”.

Breaking this long-standing pattern of labour’s framing of migrant workers as the threat to all workers is not only possible – it’s been done.

In 1929, during the Great Depression, the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council reversed its previous position against migrant workers. It “would not support any movement which would relieve the pressure on one class of the community at the expense of the other classes.” In 193, the VTLC even opposed the exclusion of Chinese workers from registration on unemployment rolls.

The choices the labour movement is facing today – exclusion or solidarity – have been faced before and, in this city, people have made the right one. In the year 1900, for instance, the Fisherman’s Union was formed, representing indigenous, white, and Japanese workers.

Today, rather than singling out migrant workers, Canadian unions would do best to overhaul the labour laws which leave so many migrant workers unprotected. Organized labour must also ensure that all workers, regardless of immigration status, can bargain collectively. That would involve a number of specific proposals – one of which would be granting permanent residency upon arrival – and one broader approach: no longer scapegoating migrant workers.

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