“All workers deserve a rest:” Migrant workers organizing in the Maritimes

Written by Tracy Glynn and Asaf Rashid on February 23, 2016


Over 75 Filipino migrant workers, labour union representatives and community activists gathered at the Equal in Rights, Equal in Dignity: Migrant Workers Rights Forum in Fredericton on Feb. 13. The migrant workers formed a chapter of Migrante to support migrant workers’ rights in the Maritimes. Photo by Alfredo Baharona.

Fredericton – Permanent residency, open work permits and access to essential services like health care were demands voiced by more than 75 Filipino migrant workers, labour union representatives and community activists gathered at the Equal in Rights, Equal in Dignity: Migrant Workers Rights Forum  in Fredericton on Feb. 13.

“It’s heavy on our hearts. Some of the workers have not told their families that their work permits are expiring and that they may be going home. They don’t want them to worry,” said Alma Damasco, a worker in the Shediac Lobster Shop and organizer with the newly-formed chapter of Migrante in New Brunswick.

Damasco from the Philippines got her permanent residency status last year but is committed to organizing for the rights of migrant workers in the Maritimes.

“I cannot bear the burden of seeing my friends leave when they have worked so hard here for years,” said Damasco.

The Shediac Lobster Shop was able to give Damasco and her co-workers a full-time contract so they were able to access the Provincial Nominees Program that, despite its problems, is seen as one of the only paths to permanent residency status.

Damasco worries about her friends with the establishment of the 30% cap by the former Harper government that stipulates that when employment falls below 6% in a region, an employer must only employ a 30% migrant workforce.

“Many of us who came here in 2011 were not able to stay because of the cap,” said Damasco. She noted, her voice breaking, that requirements to stay involve passing an English test and many of her friends have not passed or are too scared to take. “We don’t what’s going to happen them,” said Damasco.

One fish plant worker at the forum remarked, “if only the lobsters could talk,” expressing a desire to learn English but a lack of time and opportunity to learn the language.

Many workers said they have to wait six months for a Medicare card and are paying into Employment Insurance and Canadian Pension Plan even though they are not able to access those benefits.

“Some of the Canadians who are working with us are so welcoming but some of them think that we are taking their jobs. But we want them to understand that we just came here to work,” said Damasco.

“Migration is a very human story, but, the welcome is often conditional and we hold the power to accept or decline and leave out who we consider undeserving, sometimes to die,” said Jennifer Henry, Executive Director of KAIROS, an organization that brings together churches on social justice initiatives. KAIROS along with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Migrante Canada and the Canadian Labour Congress organized the forum.

“We become overly focused on controlling colonial borders. We are being faithful when we seek better paths to permanent residency, open work permits, access to community services and support, and ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families,” said Henry.

The number of undocumented workers in Canada are on the rise due to to ‘4 and 4 rule’, according to Jesson Reyes, Migrante Canada’s regional coordinator.

As of April 1, 2015, temporary foreign workers in low-waged occupations in Canada who had four-year work permits were no longer able to renew those permits. They are now forced to leave the country and wait four years before returning to work in Canada. Migrante Canada wants migrant workers to have landed permanent residence status upon arrival.

“We only have this ‘4 and 4’ rule in Canada because the government wants to be sure that there is always a fresh batch of workers who are vulnerable,” said Reyes.

There are approximately 250,000,000 global migrants, according to 2015 statistics from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Many migrants are forced from their homes in a struggle for survival, to escape war and find work. Migration experiences are very different for people depending on where they are from and their class backgrounds.

“When people from the global north retire in the Philippines, the red carpet is given to them. It’s seen as an economic opportunity for the local government.” Reyes, also from the Philippines, said it is a different story “when we want to bring our parents into Canada. It’s worth noting, who’s allowed to move when we consider global labour migration.”

“Migration is an industry. Migrant workers from the Philippines provide remittances back to their home governments. In 2015, the total remittances by Filipino workers was 27.1 billion. We also send money back home through our relatives. Thirteen percent of the Philippines’ GDP comes from these remittances,” said Reyes.

Josie Baker who works on migrant justice for the Cooper Institute, a social justice organization in Charlottetown, PEI, made connections between Atlantic Canadians working in the Alberta tar sands and migrant workers in our region from the Philippines and other countries.

“Rural poverty in Atlantic Canada and the employer-tied work permits of the temporary foreign worker program both serve to create flexible and disposable labour for free market capitalism. An equal and just society must provide migrant workers with permanent residence upon arrival in Canada and open work permits. The temporary work permit ties them to one employer. Open work permits ensure that no worker is tied to an abusive employer,” said Baker.

When describing what work conditions and relations are like in the Maritime fish plants, Damasco said, “We take over the shifts from the local workers at night. Many of the locals are in their 50 or 60 years old. They deserve a rest.” In response, Kelti Cameron, CUPE Global Justice Officer, said, “All workers deserve a rest.” Damasco described that shifts involve standing in the cold for 12 to 16 hours.

Recruitment agencies take advantage of migrant workers, according to Baker. “Recruitment agencies profit from the vulnerability of migrant workers. Although migrant workers are never supposed to have to pay a recruitment company to have to get a job, most workers arrive already in debt. Often, recruitment agencies will retain some level of control over workers while they are in Canada. Many agents charge legal or quasi-legal fees to allow a worker to keep a job they already have, or to ferry a worker from one province to another,” said Baker.

The stories of workers separated from their children, partners and families for years at a time hit Patrick Colford, NB Federation of Labour President and father of a young child, hard. He got emotional when offering solidarity to the workers, telling them that he admired their strength.

Tracy Glynn is an organizer with Refugees Welcome Fredericton and the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network. Asaf Rashid is a law student at the University of New Brunswick and an organizer with Refugees Welcome Fredericton.

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