On July 19th around twenty people convened at the corner of Côte-des-Neiges and Queen Mary. The occasion was a solidarity event and press conference organized by Justice for Noé Committee, which is working to help ex-temporary migrant worker Noé Arteaga Santos, as well as other temporary migrant workers, achieve justice.

According to the organizers of the event, Noé came to Quebec in 2008 under the Temporary Foreign Workers program, which allows employers to bring non-Canadians to work in the country for a limited time under temporary work visas.

Noé used to work for a Quebec-based tomato producer called Savoura. During his employment, Noé participated in the organization of a very short strike to demand that a sick co-worker receive medical care. After that, Noé was abruptly fired and forced to return to Guatemala.

Noe Arteaga Santos at the July 19 demonstration in Montreal. Photo by Cem Ertekin.

In 2014, a human rights tribunal decided that his firing was unjust and that Savoura had contravened articles 10 and 16 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Later in 2015, as Noé was about to reach an agreement for compensation with Savoura, the company declared bankruptcy, even though, as some speakers pointed out, Savoura’s products are still being sold at grocery stores everywhere and profits are coming in.

According to the Justice for Noé Committee, the amount that has been identified by Noé as damages in negotiations with Savoura is around $50 000, calculated on the basis of $10 000 lost salary per year for five years. The Committee has recently launched an IndieGogo campaign and is hoping to collect that amount through crowdfunding.

Plight of temporary migrant workers

According to Viviana Medina, who is a Community Organizer at the Immigrant Workers’ Centre (IWC), Noé is not the only temporary migrant worker who has been mistreated by their employers. Medina explained that she talked to several workers at the demonstration and that they all expressed the severity of their working conditions.

“They asked us to go to their farm, because they live in a lot of bad conditions. They [also] said that they are scared to say anything,” Medina said.

Helena Sanchez speaking at the solidarity event on July 19 in Montreal. Photo by Cem Ertekin.

The main problem most temporary migrant workers face is that no one tells them what rights they actually have in Canada, because whatever information they receive, it either comes through an agency or the employer. Since they don’t know their rights, they can’t ask for them. And in case that they ask for them, they risk facing dire repercussions.

According to the IWC, most of these workers have closed work permits which bind them to one employer, which means that if they get fired, their status in Canada is compromised.

Helena Sanchez, a representative from the Temporary Migrant Workers Association, which functions within the IWC, told us that the Temporary Foreign Worker Programme differs from a regular work permit in the sense that it’s “super precarious.”

“Before, there were all these corporations which used to bring all their industries to countries where it was cheap to produce. Let’s say Guatemala, let’s say Africa – anywhere. Nowadays, it’s even better. With [programs like TFWP], these corporations can actually bring the workers, not move their company there. So they have the cheapest labour ever. Labour that is frightened, that is isolated, that has no chance to know their real rights,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez emphasized that their struggle for is not only for workers’ rights, but also for human rights: “They can go too far to control their lives in a way in which they don’t have the right to go outside their homes. […] They don’t even have the right – I mean they have the right – but the employer does not give them even the right to speak with other people. We tried to speak with different workers. […] It’s even difficult to speak to them, because they’re frightened. They’re fucking frightened, it’s impossible.”

The organizers hope that their activism will solicit a response from the Quebec Minister of Labor and from Savoura, and eventually improve the working conditions of all temporary migrant workers throughout Canada.

As this year draws to a close, we see a spike of nearly five percent of foreign temporary workers admitted to Canada over the course of 2013. 125 000 foreign temporary worker permits were issued this year in comparison to the 119 000 issued in 2012.

Since the mid-1970s, the foreign temporary worker program (FTWP) has not ceased its rapid climb in acceptance rate of foreign temporary workers. The accelerated acceptance rate of the FTWP, backed by corporate Canada and successive Liberal and Conservative governments, is publicly justified by a need to keep Canada economically competitive on the international scene.

This has been the rhetoric and the words used by the political and corporate elites to justify the complete deregulation of the Canadian labour market since the mid-1980s and also the continual expansion of the FTWP into all sectors of Canadian life. Through the expansion of FTWP, anti-union and anti-labour lobbies throughout Canada have seen the stagnation of Canadian wages and the power of organized labour hit a wall, from which it may not fully recover. Profits have skyrocketed and business continues as per usual.

What these anti-union and anti-labour lobbies have essentially advocated for is a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Canada, an increased pressure on the Canadian working-class, the disappearance of the living wage, growing unemployment particularly among youth and the deregulation of the Canadian job market. All of these factors continue to upload a neoliberal vision: global division of labor between the skills-based rich in countries from the north and a manual labour-rich south, what can also be described as the triangular trade of the 21st century.

Throughout the past two decades, many have spoken of the highly skilled professionals and academics that are immigrating from developing countries toward the fully industrialized north. It is a brain drain.

migrant workers federation

On the other hand, there is the continual delocalization of many industrial jobs from northern markets towards southern markets, where wages are lower and the tax environment friendlier. In essence, outsourcing for multinational and corporate interest.

Both brain drain and outsourcing have serious consequences on the global economy. The brain drain deprives developing countries of necessary skill sets to tackle the challenges of post-colonization and outsourcing ravages communities throughout the Western world and still does today.

The form of globalization in which we must live today poses no solution for the inequity that weighs in favor of the rich and the most powerful of this world. Well, inequity is the fuel that allows globalization to continue unheeded on its destructive path.

In the past decade we have seen the surge of a new phenomenon called insourcing through the rapid growth of the FTWP. Insourcing, as opposed to outsourcing, is the use of  ‘cheap’ labor when there is lack of manpower to get this or that project completed.

There are many historical examples of insourcing in Canadian history, one being the exploitation of Chinese workers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese families at the time received no compensation for members of the family that were killed, nor were they always notified of the death itself. Although Chinese workers were promised enough money to send home to their families in China, this dream sadly rarely came to fruition.

With a history like this housed in Canadian public memory, one would think that Canada would learn from these mistakes and make sure they never happen again. Yet, that very same treatment is reserved for foreign temporary workers throughout the country today. At the end of their contract, temporary workers do not even reserve the right to reside on Canadian soil.

In recent years cases of abuse and discrimination have come to light, all of which are proof of violation of labour laws. This has put pressure on the Conservative government to create stricter guidelines for the program. The government now obliges employers to pay foreign temporary workers Canadian minimum wage and pay a user fee.

Fundamentally, FTWP is a program that is based on discrimination and will only breed more discrimination. The FTWP creates a double standard, one for Canadian residents and citizens and one for the Other, creating a second class of workers, that is a reserve force that is inexhaustible in which individuals lose their rights and their dignity.

A capitalist’s dream come true, the FTWP allows those in power to strip individuals and nations of not only their product, but their capacity for trade. To the Canadian government, these workers are disposable.

Any worker that comes to Canada and works for the betterment of our collectivity deserves to be treated in the same regard as any other worker on Canadian soil. There should be no class distinction made among workers; we are one.

To protect the hard-won battles of organized labour throughout the years, we must also struggle with foreign temporary workers. FTWP should not be a centerpiece of Canadian immigration policy, but a program that helps foreign workers who have no intention of staying while they are here and helps those who do wish to remain in Canada make the transition.

“Good enough to work here, good enough to stay” a Canada that respects itself, that upholds the principals and values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would honour such an ideal.