By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.
Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong.
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.
For the union makes us strong.
Excerpt from Solidarity Forever written for the International Workers of The World (IWW) in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin.
The Labour Day weekend has come and gone and what a weekend it was! The 1st Monday in September has been celebrated as Labour Day in Canada for more than 100 years. The weather on Monday, September 5, was a bit cooler than we have been experiencing during this summer but at least it was not 3.3 °C as The Weather Network shows was the record low in 1938.
The annual Labour Day Parade in Toronto included thousands of workers who are members of several trade unions walking from University Avenue and Queen Street West to Exhibition Place. Not everyone walked; some marched to the sounds of bagpipes while others danced to the sound of popular music ranging from rock to soca (there was even a steel band). As usual, especially since there is a provincial election just one month from now, the politicians were out in full force.
It was a completely different scene the day before, on Sunday, September 4, when a group of migrant workers and allies gathered at the British Methodist Episcopal Church on Geneva St. in St. Catharines, Ontario on the first stop of a “solidarity caravan.” It was the same story at the various stops made by the “solidarity caravan” – there was not a politician in sight. The migrant workers who come from several countries including Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago and Thailand to work on farms in southwestern Ontario rallied in Niagara this weekend to bring attention to some of the problems which they encounter as workers who are denied many of the rights other workers in Canada take for granted.
These migrant workers could not join the workers at the Labour Day parade on Monday because they had to work. Because Ontario’s labour law does not allow agriculture workers to form unions these workers continually face the threat of being deported if they refuse unsafe work. Sometimes their jobs include operating machinery which they have not been trained to do safely and handling chemicals also without the necessary training.
Thousands of migrant workers come to Canada to fill labour shortages through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP).
The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program began in 1966 in partnership with Jamaica. Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados became part of the program in 1967. Mexico joined in 1974 and later, members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS.) The program is run by Human Resources and Social Development Canada and Service Canada.
Politicians of all stripes know that migrant workers are ill treated yet this does not seem to concern them. It is left mostly up to a group of dedicated volunteers like Chris Ramsaroop, Tzazna Miranda and others of Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) to advocate for this group of racialized, vulnerable and exploited workers.
On Friday, October 27, 2006, Ramsaroop spoke to the federal government’s Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities about the conditions under which migrant workers live and work on the farms in Ontario. As part of a very detailed presentation about the lived reality of the migrant workers for whom he has advocated fearlessly and tirelessly for several years, Ramsaroop said: “Many of these workers work 12 to 15 hours a day without overtime pay or any type of holiday pay. They use dangerous chemicals and pesticides with no safety equipment or protection and training. They live in substandard housing, which I have pictures of, with leaking sewage and inadequate washrooms. They have an inability to access most employment insurance benefits despite their contributions. They face various barriers to accessing adequate housing services. And they’re prohibited from forming collective bargaining and joining unions.
“For actually taking a stand for anything they believe in, they could be sent home. As such, many workers are reluctant to stand up for their rights, since employers find it easier to send workers home at their own expense instead of dealing with their serious concerns.
“The lack of an appeal mechanism in the seasonal agricultural worker program forces many workers to remain silent out of fear of being expelled from the program.”
In spite of this information none of the political parties seem to have an interest in attending to the dreadful human rights abuses the migrant workers suffer.
With a provincial election a month from now, Ramsaroop has embarked on the second year of raising awareness (building on last year’s Pilgrimage to Freedom) in the communities where the migrant workers toil in Ontario.
Making a connection with the descendants of enslaved Africans in the communities and educating migrant workers about the history of the Underground Railroad and educating the communities about the suffering of the migrant workers has led to the “solidarity caravan.”
The British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines was the first stop. As the workers spoke about their working and living conditions, they also learned about the struggles of Harriet Tubman whose image is prominent at the church (built by African Canadians in 1855) as she worshipped there when she lived in St. Catherines.
The caravan also made stops in Virgil, Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls to expose the differences that exist in the lives of the migrant workers who live in poverty, housed in places little more than hovels as they harvest the grapes that make the “wine country” successful and enrich the owners of the vineyards who live in mansions. In Niagara on the Lake, the migrant workers and allies distributed flyers and the Ontario produce which they (migrant workers) plant and harvest. Many people were willing to take the flyers and listen but soon the law was called to encourage the caravan to leave the area.
At the Niagara Falls area the caravan visited the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel, a church built by the African Canadian community in 1836 where they learned some more about the history of African Canadians. There will be caravans on September 25 and October 2, visiting other stops on the Underground Railway.
According to literature from J4MW: The towns that we will be visiting, as part of the Underground Railroad, promised a land of freedom, hope and opportunities, but are now hubs of agricultural activity that are highly dependent on exploitative temporary migration programs for labour. The caravan will highlight the current labour laws, the restrictions of migrant worker programs, the profits of the agricultural industry and how Canadian society profits from the indentureship of migrant labour. While the community prepares to celebrate its annual wine festival and rejoices in the astronomical profits that have been achieved through the sacrifices of the migrant community, this tour is to celebrate workers’ contributions, demand changes to our laws to reflect their realities and to expose the hidden realities of temporary foreign worker programs across Canada.
Even though migrant workers are prevented from unionizing they deserve support from unionized workers because they are part of the family.
An injury to one is an injury to all! Solidarity Forever!