A Filipina live-in caregiver spends the night in jail after her employers accuse her of theft. A Mexican butcher, forced to work illegally after an employer seizes his papers, calls life as a non-status worker in Canada as “a thousand times more exploitative than in the United States.” A Guatemalan temporary foreign worker is deported after standing up to his employer, a major greenhouse operator.
These are a few of the stories documented in Migrant Voices, a series of radio broadcasts, and podcasts for the web, organized by the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC). These stories, which are archived on the IWC’s website (and sometimes available in two or three languages) resulted from skill-sharing workshops aimed at getting folks at the IWC trained in media production, to tell their own stories.
Here, the IWC presents excerpts from interviews conducted by two black men, both recent immigrants from West African countries. They interviewed each other for Migrant Voices about their time as temp workers at a warehouse operated by Dollarama, the discount retail chain.
These two men, whose identities are strictly anonymous to protect them from retribution by the company, both compared the extreme mental and physical stress they experienced to slavery.
WAREHOUSE LABOURERS “WORK MORE THAN MACHINES”
The first, a highly skilled worker with formal training and ten years of experience as an electro-mechanic in a powdered-milk factory, completed government job-market integration programs after immigrating, but said they “didn’t pay off.”
He finally turned to temp agencies for work, and found himself at a Dollarama warehouse. He was shocked by the difficulty of the labour.
“I was surprised that in an industrialized country like Canada, you could have places where people work more than machines,” he said.
His job involved lifting boxes all day to build massive pallets of merchandise. His daily quota was 23 pallets.
“To do 23 pallets a day, you have to do a lot of heavy lifting, and we don’t have time to rest, so it’s physical, and the place is very noisy, there’s a lot of dust,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who bump into each other because everyone is on guard, everyone is stressed because everyone wants to reach their quota.”
He said that as a black man, he was targeted for work comparable to slavery.
“Certainly one could compare it to slavery, and I’ve been able to understand in my time here that just by an individual’s skin colour, when I go to the placement agency, there’s work for those that are black, and there’s work for those that are white,” he said, adding that he lost jobs to white Quebecois people despite his advanced qualifications.
The physically taxing work has left its mark on his body, he said.
“It’s slavery because I physically felt it. I have health problems that have continued after working at Dollarama. Even now I’m still being treated. I have muscle pains that I’m suffering currently. I’m on painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs practically every week.”
He warned others to expect menial labour if they decide to immigrate.
“When you come here, what you know is forgotten. It’s like you’re being reborn, because here … you must go to their school. You should know that you’re going to redo your training, that you’re going to start with physical labour.”
And he called on the government to revisit the laws regulating temporary placement agencies, to make them “more humane.”
LABOUR ORGANIZER’S DEMOTION A “FIRING IN DISGUISE”
Another temp worker, originally from Cameroon, called on the government to stop the “terrible exploitation” of immigrant workers employed by temp agencies.
In a Migrant Voices interview, he said he’d earned two master’s degrees in Belgium (studying biology and agronomy) before working in environmental protection for four years in Cameroon and then immigrating to Canada in search of a better life. He said he was shocked by the level of prejudice he faced here.
“People don’t trust us, and really, that is shocking,” he said. “They doubt the very basis of our experience, of our training.”
He spent several months unemployed before, disenchanted, he turned to temp agencies to support himself and his wife. He was soon working for minimum wage as a labourer in the high-pressure environment of the Dollarama warehouse.
“The work is very hard, it’s very physical,” he said. “There’s a quota you have to reach every day and if you don’t you’ll be fired the next day.”
Temp workers who got injured on the job lacked knowledge of their labour rights, he said. After getting involved with the IWC, he began organizing know-your-rights workshops and distributing flyers at the warehouse.
But when management found out, he lost his job.
“When they got wind of my movement, immediately they said that they needed to get rid of this bad element,” he said. The temp agency gave him increasingly difficult work until he finally quit.
“I realized that the work they gave me was harder than what I had before, and that I had to work part-time for less money,” he said. “I worked so that my family could survive.”
Finally, he said he couldn’t take it anymore. He quit his job, saying what he experienced was a “firing in disguise.”
But he said he achieved his goal, raising awareness among immigrant workers about their labour rights.
“They know that they can be compensated for workplace accidents, know that they can be compensated when they’re sick, so … I’m very happy with what I did,” he said.
Full audio of these and other interviews is available on the IWC website at http://tinyurl.com/bhn62lb. As much as possible, we have endeavored to present these testimonies in English, French and Spanish but not all recordings are yet available in these languages.