By M. Cooke
MONTREAL – “We are foreign temporary workers, any day we could be expelled. That’s why we need a strong and flexible association” said Enrique Llanes, a temporary foreign worker from Spain.
Enrique was speaking to a group of over 50 temporary foreign workers who had gathered in Montreal this past Saturday to launch the Temporary Foreign Workers Association (TFWA).
They had gathered not only to fight for their rights, but also for the over 300,000 temporary foreign workers currently in Canada and those who will come in future years.
Mohamed and Helena, temporary foreign workers from Tunisia and Spain, welcomed the workers at the start of the day.
“I would particularly like to thank you for your dedication despite the cold and the distance” said Mohamed.
The workers had come from throughout Quebec: the Laurentians, the Eastern Townships, Chicoutimi, Quebec City, Montreal. These workers came from a range of industries including working as farmers, butchers, machinists, welders, translators, lab technicians among others.
Helena continued the introduction saying: “The obstacles temporary foreign workers face are infinite. The system is created to keep us misinformed and isolated”.
Shortly after, one after another, the workers introduced themselves and shared their experiences of working in Quebec.
One group of farm workers talked about recently discovering that their employer had withheld an average of 2 hours of wages per day for over 6 years.
Several workers complained about being tied to a single employer. One worker explained that the company had laid him off for 3 months, and due to his work permit he could not apply to other jobs, nor could he apply for employment insurance. He was forced to work under the table to survive.
In the legal workshop held earlier in the day, groups of workers shared stories about their employer forcing them to rent his apartments or else being fired.
Workers also shared stories of being told to apply as “single” despite being married and having children back home, putting their future plans to apply as permanent residents in jeopardy.
Other workers shared stories about language barriers. They were not allowed to take French courses and they could not access translation services at hospitals nor within some unions.
But these are only a few of the stories of what is happening throughout Quebec and Canada.
The number of temporary foreign workers has been steadily increasing in the past few years. In 2011, there were over 300 000 temporary foreign workers in Canada.
There has been a shift in the Canadian immigration system says Manon Perron, a union leader with the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN).
“Last week, I was in meetings with a top immigration bureaucrat and he told me that they are looking for workers, not citizens” said Manon Perron to the group of workers.
The temporary foreign worker programs are set up to bring cheap labour in to Canada. The workers work here for low wages and no benefits and once they are no longer needed, they are sent back to their countries.
In 2011 there were more temporary foreign workers than immigrants accepted into the country.
The launch of the Temporary Foreign Workers Association is a big step in challenging a program that is set-up to, as Helena said “keep [workers] misinformed and isolated”.
The association will provide workers with access to legal aid clinics, workshops on labour rights, as well as translation services.
In addition, the association will fight to address the policies that lead to the issues faced by foreign temporary workers. The association hopes to win access to employment insurance and health care, open work permits, easier access to apply for permanent residency, as well as the right to unionize.
Despite the obstacles the workers face, there was something electric about having workers from throughout the province meet with each other and begin building an association that would break the isolation and fight for their rights.