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Dec 17

The unbearable temporariness of being

The IWC Experience

From temp agencies to temporary foreign workers, capitalism has renewed its offensive against the working people in an attempt to once again restructure work relations to serve the bottom line.  Tens of workers are arriving at our door each month with complaints varying from unjust dismissals, unpaid overtime, psychological harassment, CSST claims, collective dismissal cases, and unpaid wages. Now their troubles are exacerbated by the temporariness of their employment and status.  The following, mostly immigrant workers’ experiences, are the challenges we face in our day-to-day work.

“Framed”

A group of workers from a factory that produces frames first came forward early this year to complain that they were laid off rather than given preventative leave through CSST.  They were told that there was lack of work, but what raised the alarm bells was the fact that they were a group of 5 women from different departments and different shifts.  All of them were pregnant and showing.  They were called to the office just days after the first among them applied for early paid leave as a preventative measure during her last months of pregnancy.

They fought back, made their complaints and won the right to paid preventative leave and later maternity leave.  But it was a partial victory. They were also made to sign agreements to drop all other complaints including illegal practices and psychological harassment against their employer.  Also in the agreement, they were not to return to work after their maternity leave.

Some of their husbands came along to encourage them and to see what can be done about their own predicament. Pregnant women were not the only targets of restructuring in the company. A pattern was beginning to show where groups of workers were being laid off, temporarily it would seem.  The problem was the workers could not remember any instance where those who were laid-off are being recalled during times of “production boom”.  What they do remember are new sets of workers being hired and later, after the “boom” and the subsequent “bust”, more lay-offs.

The question on everyone’s mind; “Am I next to be replaced by workers with less experience and seniority?”  They doubted very much that the group of workers who were already “temporarily” laid off will come back in six months to file collective dismissal claims if the company does not recall them within six months as the workers were advised to do by the CNT.

A new group from this same company has now come forward.  They were also recently laid-off, again seemingly temporarily.  This time they also received another letter explaining that they should go to a particular “temp agency” if they want to be rehired.

Fortress Westmount

The plight of the workers in a particular Westmount nursing home is not new to us at the IWC.  Last year the unionized employees asked for help, because they felt that their local union president was basically co-opted by the management and was in fact acting in the interest of management rather than the workers.  After trying and failing to set a meeting between the rank and file members of the local union and the rep for the union head office, we decided to go another root.

Finding out that a general assembly to elect new officers of the local was in the works (a big surprise to the majority of the workers since many have not been informed of this through any meetings of the local), they decided to hold meetings of rank and file members instead to field their own candidates and to unite as many workers prior to the official elections.  The IWC helped to facilitate their meetings, showed them how to approach the members in the different shifts without sounding alarm bells and provided them a safe and secure meeting place to discuss their issues and unite on a plan.

To the surprise of the union head office rep, almost all the workers from the different shifts came to cast their votes during the elections.  The result, the removal of the incumbent officers (who were dumbfounded because an overwhelming majority voted against them) with new members into the executive.

Of course there was management intervention prior to the elections, where a candidate for the position of President of the local was pressured into backing out of her candidacy.  The results were far from perfect, but the workers learned an important lesson: the leadership of unions, like anything else has to remain in the hands of the workers if their interests are to be met.  “Get organized!” is not just a battle cry for forming a union, it’s a principle to carry forward even after forming one.

The unionized employees in this Westmount nursing home have once again reached out to us. This time they are poised to strike and hope to garner our expertise in gathering community support.  The issue: a measly %10 raise within a period of 5 years.  For some, this translates to 1 dollar between 2011 to 2016.  Just the rise in public transport fares will surpass this raise in the next year.

The ridiculous offer alone would incite workers to strike but this isn’t the worst of it. Workers who are on-call have a more foreboding story to tell.  Those who refuse a shift for whatever reason are being replaced by temp agency workers.  If this is allowed to happen, it would be the death of the union and ultimately the death of permanent positions and direct hiring.

From the death of permanent positions to the death of permanent status

We have already heard about union busting and the replacement of unionized workers by migrant workers under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program.  We learned about the issues of the migrant workers under this program.  We jumped through the hoops required by the CNT in filing complaints on behalf of groups of migrants who got into labour related conflicts with their employers.  We know more or less about the exorbitant fees by agencies and employers alike that milk the workers of their expected incomes while they work in Canada.

What we need to learn still is how to organize the workers to demand for conditions which will remove the precariousness of their situation.  All of it tied to the temporary status in Canada. Getting permanent employment is one thing, try demanding for it when you have no permanent status and that status is tied to your employment. Out goes your presumable rights.  Keep quiet or else…

The following is an excerpt from an actual letter to workers who were fed up with their conditions and wanted to end their employment:

“We will need your new work permit before you leave this jobsite [sic]; otherwise it is our responsibility to report to the Canada Border Service Agency…”


“Or else… what?”

A migrant worker from this company who wrote the letter complained on behalf of his co-workers.  After meeting with us and and a local community organization and after receiving a labour rights training, the worker listed their complaints in a letter to the company which included: unpaid overtime and excessive rental payments that were taken out directly from their paychecks by the employer.

The result was an invitation to leave the country and later, after informing his employer that he was transferring to another job, they all received the infamous letter.  It was a lightly veiled threat to stay put or else.

The worker chose “or else” and braved it out.  He found another employer in New Brunswick and began to organize a support group for his fellow migrant workers there.  He also participated in the founding congress of Migrante Canada in Ottawa last November, an alliance of Filipino migrant organizations across the country and was elected into the National Council.

For this particular migrant worker “or else” meant getting organized and fighting back.

Stop Gap or Stop “Cap…”?

During a meeting with a group of immigrant workers for the Temp Agency campaign, a worker asked, “why do temp agencies and indirect hiring even exists?”

They answered this in the process of their discussion.  Even as the capitalist enterprises point to the economic crisis as the justification for the measures and “restructuring” that they take, and even as the whole capitalist state point to the same “austerity” measures against the working poor, the workers know that this crisis was not caused by any greed or laziness on their part.

They all agreed that the economic crisis is caused by the same people directly causing their misery at present.  “This crisis they have caused themselves and now they want to put it on the backs of the workers,” says one temp agency worker who came to help the IWC formulate our position paper on the campaign.

As cliché and outdated as the western capitalist world sees this, the age-old Marxist statement still holds true today:

“Workers have nothing to lose but their chains.”

HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND HAVE GREAT NEW YEAR!

Joey Calugay

CTI-IWC Community Organizer

Temporary Agency Workers Association (TAWA-ATTAP)

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