February 25, 2013

“What about migrant worker families?” ask activists from Guelph

Protest outside Diane Finley`s offices. (From the Simcoe Reformer)

Peter Miller

On Friday, February 22, Fuerza/Puwersa, Justicia for Migrant Workers, and community members from Simcoe, Ontario organized a rally in front of Federal Conservative Minister Diane Finley’s constituency office.

Finley is the Federal Minister of Human Resources & Skills Development. Last December, she announced the withdrawal of EI benefits for migrant workers.

Migrant workers have been paying into
 Employment Insurance since 1966, but just recently became aware
that they were eligible for E.I. special benefits in 2002. It is estimated that they pay 400 million dollars into E.I. each year.

Migrant workers have used E.I. maternal and paternal
 benefits to provide much needed support for their newborn children, Justicia For Migrant Workers explained in a recent press release. Migrant Workers could also apply to use the special E.I. Benefits to provide support for ailing spouses.

Tzazna Miranda Leal, a member of Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW)
argues in J4MV’s recent press release that “these benefits meant families could stay healthy, and in
some cases have kept children alive. We are calling on the Federal
Government to restore them immediately.”

 At the rally, protesters chanted and held banners. One large banner was also a giant petition that said “Restore E.I. Parental Benefits for Migrant Workers.”

 An estimated 30,000 migrant workers come to Canada to work in agriculture and other industries. Many migrant workers work for the agricultural industry in Simcoe County.

The thousands of foreign workers that come through the SAWP to Canada face many issues while on the job. They are often placed in rural communities which are extremely isolating. Workers can face up to 9 months away from their families in various countries where they come from the Caribbean, and South and Central America.

They work in some of the most dangerous industries. Agricultural labourers face exposure to pesticides, other chemical and organic additives, and prolonged work hours under extreme temperatures. They do not have the right to form unions or collectively bargain. Moreover, they get paid lower wages than Canadian workers, often working 12 to 15 hour days, six days a week.

In June of 2012 the Federal Government passed law that allows employers to pay temporary high-skilled foreign workers up to 15 per cent less than local wages. The new law also allows employers to pay low-skilled foreign workers 5 per cent less than local wages. Migrant rights activists say that this policy is highly discriminatory.

Labour leaders like Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan agree, and also point out that the policy will cause wages for Canadian workers to lower as well.

Activists plan to organize more actions against the cut to E.I. for migrant workers. They also have noted the importance of recognizing that this action so far was organized by friends and allies of migrant workers, and that as those working as migrant workers begin to return to Canada in the next few months, actions will be led by their voices and opinions on the taking away of their rights and benefits. One a member of Fuerza/Puwersa Guelph told Rebel Youth:

“In understanding this action, and understanding our continued work around this campaign, the most important consideration is that as more migrant farm worker community members start returning in the next couple of months, their voices and opinions around the taking away of their EI benefits will come forward, will take the lead, and be supported. Diane Finley cowardly announced the taking away of EI benefits during the farming off-season, while most of the migrating farm workers we work with are in their home countries, demonstrating how the government continues to disrespect and exclude them, it becomes so crucial not to perpetuate this, and to recognize that we work as allies, and support the recognition and confrontation of attacks on migrant workers, but they can speak for themselves”.

According to Fuerza/Puwersa it is important to recognize the continued risk  migrant workers face in speaking out, perpetuated by their lack of employment security and precarious status. Migrant workers are taking the risk as well as being strategic and coming up with ways to protect themselves while also having their concerns heard.

The Guelph-based activist group is looking toward the Justicia campaign where workers wrote their thoughts around the EI cuts on posters, taking pictures holding these posters while covering their faces. During the rally participants were holding these posters that were written by workers, and shared their messages in their absence.

“This is money migrant workers and their employers paid into the
system, now Finley has decided to be a miser and steal it all away,”
added migrant justice activist Amar Bathia. “Norfolk County’s
agricultural industry would not survive without migrant workers. They
have been subsidizing Canada’s EI system for almost half a century. Is
 this how we re-pay that debt?”

Fuerza/Puwersa stands for "strength" in Spanish and Tagalog. The group of community members in Guelph is dedicated to working as allies to migrant communities, and building awareness of the injustices faced by migrant workers in Canada. They believe that “all beings deserve dignity, agency, and the ability to both “move” and “stay” wherever on earth we choose, according to our basic and self-determined needs.”

The group’s activities include working as allies to those under migrant worker programs, including the Seasonal Agricultural Worker’s (SAWP) program, as well as the Live-in Caregiver program (LCP), and  raising critical awareness about issues these individuals raise.

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