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Campaigning for immigrant worker justice.

SINCE ITS FOUNDING in 2000, the Immigrant Workers' Centre (IWC) has both initiated and supported a number of campaigns to improve the conditions of migrant workers. Often these campaigns are launched in response to problems that workers bring to the centre. The campaigns we discuss below developed from individual situations that have wider policy implications. The campaigns are "CSST for Domestic Workers" (Commission de la sante et de la securite du travail, or Workers' Compensation), "Eliminating the Delai de carence" (the three-month delay before immigrants and temporary workers are covered by Quebec Medicare) and Justice for L'Amours Workers.

CSST for Domestic Workers

Janet (not her real name), a live-in caregiver, came to Canada from the Philippines to work as a domestic. She had lived in her employer's basement and, because of certain chemicals in the room, developed a rash that was so severe that she could no longer work. She came to the IWC and asked for help. When we presented the case to the Worker Compensation Board (the CSST), the response was that if she had been working in any workplace other than a private home, she would have received compensation from CSST, the organization responsible for health and safety in the workplace in the province of Quebec.

Currently, all those performing domestic work in the private home of their employer are ineligible for automatic coverage under the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases. Domestic work includes housework, as well as caring for children, elderly, or disabled people, whether the worker lives in the home or not. Domestic workers can register themselves with CSST or be registered through an association, but CSST contributions must be paid out of the worker's pocket, and not by their employer, as in the case of all other employees. Domestic workers are the only salaried workers not guaranteed CSST coverage by their employer. In researching this issue, the IWC quickly discovered that domestic workers in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario were all covered by health-and-safety compensation. It is important to recognize that domestic workers face many risks in their daily tasks, such as: illness, infection, exposure to chemicals, awkward and repetitive tasks, heavy lifting, fatigue and stress.

This campaign was launched on International Women's Day, 2006, by PINAY (the Filipino Women's Organization of Quebec), the Association des Aides Familiales du Quebec (AAFQ) and the Immigrant Workers' Centre (IWC). The demands of the campaign are:

1. That current CSST legislation be extended to include mandatory coverage of domestic workers regardless of immigration status or validity of work permit.

2. That basic CSST information be available in languages other than French.

The first part of the campaign has been getting support across the province. To date, approximately eighty organizations (including women's groups, unions and community organizations) support the campaign. It has been hard going for the campaign, with periods of some success (like getting a meeting with the Minister of Labour) and periods without progress. But the commitment is there, many domestic workers are involved, and the struggle continues.

Eliminating the Delai de Carence

Another important campaign for the IWC has been the Health Care for All Campaign, demanding the abolition of the waiting period for Medicare imposed on migrants to Quebec (in the short term) and the extension of free healthcare to all, including the undocumented (in the longer term). Since 2001, all new residents in Quebec, especially immigrants and temporary workers, have had to wait three months after their declared arrival before being covered by public health insurance (the delai de carence, or DDC).

More than 40,000 landed immigrants and temporary workers per year face this exclusion in Quebec. Under the DDC, new immigrants and temporary workers get stuck in the bottom tier of healthcare. The DDC is part of a larger trend toward the privatization of the Quebec and Canadian healthcare systems. The costs of this policy are borne by new immigrants, to the profit of private insurance companies.

In the analysis of the IWC, the DDC ignores provincial, federal and international human rights by refusing immigrants and temporary workers their right to physical and mental health. In theory, those rights should be exercised without discrimination of any kind. In reality, 84 per cent of people not receiving Medicare for three months are new immigrants! For live-in caregivers and other temporary workers, they may even go through more than one three-month delay, facing major obstacles to protecting their health.

When the DDC was implemented, the IWC started to see cases of people not getting healthcare when they needed it, or--nearly as bad--people being saddled with debt into the tens of thousands of dollars. Convinced that this was discriminatory and bad for Quebec society overall, the IWC teamed up with a number of other organizations to work on a campaign to abolish the DDC. Project Genesis, a neighbourhood social-rights organization, and, again, PINAY (which represents many live-in caregivers) are the two other partners in the coordinating committee. We also have support from more than twenty other organizations, including the biggest immigrant-serving coalitions of Quebec.

The strategy has been to target the health minister and the provincial health-insurance board (RAMQ) to pressure them to remove the regulation from the books. Tactics have ranged from press conferences, to camping out in front of the health minister's office, to public education on these issues, to supporting individual families facing DDC debt.

Justice for L'Amour Workers

This campaign was initiated when former workers of the Montreal apparel company, L'Amour Inc., came to the IWC for help because they were laid off in dribs and drabs over the course of the past year. To date, a group of more than 25 workers has been organized. Many of them worked for this company for more than ten years--some for more than twenty. During this time, L'Amour Inc. has become a very profitable company for its owners. L'Amour boasts that it is a leading company in the apparel industry and has operations in places like China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, with over 2,500 workers worldwide. A long-time partner of the retail giant Wal-Mart, it recently broke into the U.S. market in July, 2007, by taking over Terramar Sports, a company based in Tarrytown, New York.


For their part, L'Amour workers have suffered horrible working conditions over the years. One example of this was the front door being locked and chained during the night shift. Under these conditions, workers were always in danger of being trapped, because escape routes were limited in the case of an industrial fire. Often those doing piecework were not paid when machines broke down and they could not produce quotas. There were times when workers were forced to have meals at their stations while they continued to work, which meant that they had virtually no breaks.

All of this was made worse by a union being set up in 2004, which many workers believe to be "pro-management." They say that, "this prevented us from organizing ourselves into a genuine and militant workers' union that would have fought for our rights, our jobs and our dignity." The workers' demands are simple: to be compensated fairly for the years of loyalty they've shown to this company. Most of all, they want their dignity back and are calling for justice for the dismissed L'Amour workers. They are pressuring the Commission des normes du travail (labour standards board) to take their case, and are demanding compensation packages for these lay-offs. On February 21, 2008, the workers held a demonstration outside the Commission office in Montreal to expose this situation.


Immigration tendencies over the past thirty years have been well documented. This wave of immigration is mainly non-white, from the South. Despite relatively high levels of education, immigrant workers tend to be concentrated in sectors at the bottom of the economy, and they remain there over long periods. The impacts of globalization and neoliberalism are seen in massive human displacement, restructured labour processes and cutbacks to public services. In the context of a rising demand for cheap labour, these include privatization and in just-in-time production. Immigrant workers face precarious, low-paid, non-unionized jobs and exclusion from many health, safety and workplace policies. Beyond this are migrant workers without official status, who are forced to work below the minimal standards that theoretically protect other workers.

These campaigns reflect both the situations of immigrant workers and some of the emerging forms of organizing. Both the CSST and the DDC show how new immigrants are disproportionately excluded from public policies and protections related to work. The L'Amour campaign demonstrates the precarious nature of production in Canada and the arbitrary, unregulated working conditions.

There are important lessons that the IWC has learned from these campaigns. First, it is difficult to organize immigrant workers outside their workplaces, particularly those with precarious immigration status. There are many reasons for this, but it is important to be present and consistent, and to support people who come forward to challenge their employers. Second, coalition building is necessary, but not always easy. It takes a lot of time and work to educate allies about the conditions faced by immigrant workers--and that they bring their own organizing and political traditions, which do not always fit well with Quebec's more bureaucratic style. As these issues are put in the public sphere, immigrant workers can begin to take their place as political and social actors in the struggle for social and economic justice.
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Author:Hanley, Jill; Henaway, Mostafa; Shragge, Eric
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2008
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