Unions must fight exploitation of migrant workers

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By Dr. AJAMU NANGWAYA | September 09 2015

Source: ShareNews

DrANangwayaWe have just observed another Labour Day in Canada and the United States. It might have encouraged us to think about inadequate wages, terrible working conditions, long hours of work, huge profits made by corporations, being bullied and bossed by employers and constant anxiety over job security.

It is totally understandable, if we had devoted a part of the long weekend holiday pondering the brave new world of the capitalist workplace.

For the minority of workers in the North American working-class who hold membership in trade unions, they might have thought about the relevance of unions in an environment where the bosses hold the sword of power over the heads of the workers.

Trade unions are supposed to function as instruments of resistance for workers in this wage-slavery system. In addition to their protective role, trade unions ought to see the creation of a world without exploitation, injustice and class privilege as a basic part of their mission.

Many trade union members ritualistically sing the lyrics to the Ralph Chaplin-composed song Solidarity Forever at conventions and other trade union events. However, most of these unionized workers are unaware of the fact that the song is calling for a non-capitalist society:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong

Solidarity Forever
Solidarity Forever
Solidarity Forever
For the union makes us strong

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold
Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand-fold
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
The union makes us strong

The oppressive condition of life for documented and undocumented migrant workers in Canada, most of whom are racialized, should be a central of central trade unions. After all, “An injury to one is an injury to all” members of the working-class.

If trade unions give priority attention to the unfair experience of migrant workers, they would be demonstrating with this super-exploited section of the working-class.

These labour organizations would be signifying a commitment to fighting racist immigration policies and showing concrete support for an inclusive and politically mature approach to the class struggle.

The Vancouver chapter of the immigrant rights organization No One Is Illegal just issued a report Never Home: Legislating Discrimination in Canadian Immigration. Never Home covers a range of immigration subjects such as the jailing of undocumented migrants for non-criminal offences, preference for temporary exploitable workers over permanent residents, creation of barriers to accessing Canadian citizenship, hostility toward the acceptance of refugees, and increased deportation of permanent residents.

This report is very informative and revealing of the oppressive nature of Canada’s immigration system for migrant workers and working-class racialized people. Never Home should serve as a call to action for the Canadian labour movement and social justice organizations that are opposed to racism, class exploitation and policing and the prison system as instruments of social control.

On the question of temporary migrant workers, the report highlights a worrying development.

“The number of temporary migrant workers in Canada tripled from 101,100 to 300,210 over the past decade, though it still comprises less than two per cent of the overall labour force.”

The noteworthy issue here is the 2013 figure for permanent residents entering Canada was 258,953, while the number of  temporary non-residents stood at 460,663 (visitors not included).

Temporary workers are good enough to do low-paying, backbreaking jobs but they are unworthy of Canadian permanent residency. Migrant workers do not have access to collective bargaining rights, freedom to change employers, easy access to social services and their housing is usually inadequate or very costly.

These workers are also easy targets for opportunistic trade unions, politicians and the public when the job market is weak.

In 2011, the federal government made changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP). According to the report, the government instituted “the ‘four in and four out’ rule that bars the renewal of work permits for foreign workers who have been working in Canada for four cumulative years.” This anti-immigrant regulation could result in the mass deportation of 70,000 low-waged migrant workers.

While I am calling for the labour movement to advocate for documented and undocumented migrant workers, I am very much aware of the fact that unions actively supported the exclusion of racialized workers from entering Canada in the 19th and early 20th century. The text North of the Colour Line: Migration and Black Resistance, 1870-1955 by Dr. Sarah-Jane Mathieu documents trade union and society’s hostility to the migration of Afrikans to Canada.

Currently, the labour movement, as a whole, and the New Democratic Party (so-called party of Canada’s working-class) are not demonstrating principled solidarity with migrant workers. They have both pandered to the claim that migrant workers are taking away jobs from Canadian workers. The party and organized labour have given their tacit support to the Conservative Party’s recent changes to the TFWP.

It is incumbent on progressive or class-conscious members to organize at local, regional, provincial and national levels of the trade union movement around migrant workers and a just immigration system. Class conscious trade union members may pursue the following actions:

  • Organize workshops and public education meeting on the condition of migrant workers and the class struggle;
  • Draft migrant workers’ solidarity resolutions and organize to get them passed in your local and other levels of the union;
  • Provide financial support in the annual budget and volunteers to migrant solidarity groups such as No One Is Illegal and Justicia (Justice) for Migrant Workers and
  • Participate in campaigns to win permanent residency for migrant workers as well as rights that are currently available to Canadian workers.

Foreign and Canadian workers are both exploited by wage-slavery. They should unite to achieve economic and social justice.