RECLAIMING STATUS AND VOICE

THE ARTISTS’ BLOC January– December 2013bloc

HUMANIZING COLLECTIVE STRUGGLES

The Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) is a human rights organization, located in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges since 2000. The workers the Centre looks after often face exploitation and discriminatory living conditions. Largely because of their status, these people lack job security, as well as access to education and health services, and often face the risk of deportation at any moment.

IWC continues to raise awareness by hosting monthly workshops, training sessions, and biweekly legal clinics. At the same time, it is organizing two campaigns. One targets employment agencies, which hire many of the aforementioned workers. Many are employed in restaurants, hotels, factories, and in housekeeping, without being sure that they will be paid, or whether there will even be work for them the next day. These agencies exploit their clients, who are hard-pressed to earn enough to survive, and have little knowledge of the labour market, and its laws. Companies using these agencies have fewer responsibilities than if they were hiring permanent staff, and must be held accountable for exploitation. IWC has focused on the difficult working conditions in Dollarama warehouses, which uses agencies to employ 500 mostly-African immigrant workers for a pittance, usually in unsafe working conditions that have resulted in accidents. This situation produces systemic racism: Africans and white supervisors!

The IWC campaign aims to highlight the injustices of the Canadian Government Temporary Foreign Worker Program, created to meet the immediate manpower needs of large corporations, and increase their profits at the expense of people. Until recently, this program allowed foreign workers to be paid 15% less than the minimum wage – the Centre has worked with Tunisian welders working in the Saguenay, and landscapers in western Montreal. Unfortunately, these situations are quite common, and the struggle for respect in the workplace is always necessary, when faced with bosses who believe that exploitation is justified, especially if a person’s status is related to the stipulations in their work permit. Quebec’s agrofood businesses increasingly rely on cheap and easily “disposable” labour from Guatemala, Mexico and other Central American countries, as well as the Caribbean. Eric Shragge, cofounder, former chairman of the board, and member of IWC’s volunteer staff says that changes in the capitalist system happen very quickly, and the level of exploitation increases daily.

The Center also seeks equal access to CSST (Commission de la santé et de la sécurité au travail) services for caregivers. In 2013, IWC launched a campaign to ensure equal access to social services for precarious workers in Quebec, regardless of their status. There are over 450,000 employees in Quebec who work in jobs that qualify as precarious.

One of IWC’s goals is to build a labour movement, as well as a balance of power in the workplace and in the affected communities. Aadi Ndir, volunteer activist and community organizer at the Center since 2010, states,”What we really do is outreach work, because we go into circles where we are likely to meet immigrant workers, and were we suspect abuse may be taking place. We try to mobilize them and give them advice about their rights, according to the country’s minimum labour standards.”

The organization provides support services on an individual basis in up to six languages (English, French, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Iranian, Bengali, Tagalog, etc.), whether it be in dealings with the Commission des normes du travail, the CSST, or with employers directly. According to Eric Schragge, it does so in a highly politicized manner, asking clients if there are others in the same situation as them, or if there is something that can be done for them collectively. Those who enter the IWC office are well-aware that their work-related problems are caused by corporations, Canadian immigration policies, etc. They’ve made their own assessment. The Centre only helps them to identify and deepen their understanding of the facts.

The IWC has adopted a democratic process, which ensures that its direction is determined by the worker-members. These are people struggling to find a sense of fairness and equity in the workplace. Workers are the direct contacts and leading players in organization-led campaigns, or at meetings with representatives of the Ministère du Travail. It shows more credibility when the workers suffering from exploitation talk about their lives on their own behalf.

The organization seeks to develop leaders from the community who can articulate claims, develop an analysis and enlist others in the same situation. No one but people from the field can do it.

According to Mostafa Henaway, community organizer at IWC, the bulk of the agency’s work has always been cultural in nature, that is to say, developing platforms and a means of enabling people to express their own experiences, and not just making statements at picket lines or events. The expression of individual experiences is important for the kind of movement that the Centre wants to create. When people work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, they not only experience poor working conditions or the deprivation of legal rights, but lose their humanity as well.

Activism is part of this human rights organization’s culture. Several project members were workers who had already been involved in Centre campaigns for some time. One of the reasons that motivated the Centre to develop an activist community art project in line with its principles was fostering a sense of leadership among immigrant workers, and their desire to represent themselves and regain control over their own history.

Aadi says, “We explored communicational channels so that these people could speak freely about the difficult working conditions they encounter. It is not easy for this group of people to talk about workplace rights. Essentially, it is done via events, campaigns, or testimonials, etc. Every time, however, we have run into obstacles where people did not feel comfortable enough to describe their difficult living conditions. Perhaps, this project could be a less intimidating setting, or a setting where people would feel more comfortable and less isolated, as a condition to sharing their experience. Art is more flexible and user-friendly.”

For the ROUAGE project, the agency decided to establish a collective of artists, consisting of Koby Rogers Hall, a performer and intercultural art and political activism enthusiast, as well as Mostafa, community organizer, and IWC Coordinator for the Centre’s various art events and projects. This “coalition” allowed for a direct link with the organization to be established, and to make a financial contribution for the work that would have to be performed outside of business hours.

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