Fighting for Dignity

Event to Raise Funds For Immigrant Workers Centre

  • Noé Arteaga Santos worked in a tomato greenhouse, where he witnessed many human rights violations. Photo by Vicki Burton.

Would-be immigrants are being increasingly allowed into Canada as temporary foreign workers rather than as permanent residents.

These migrant workers effectively exist in the shadows, often working dangerous jobs for little pay and even less certainty.

“If you’re good enough to work here, you’re good enough to stay here,” says David Koch, coordinator of Migrant Voices, a pilot project run by the Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre.

The number of temporary foreign workers in Canada has been steadily climbing for years. As of 2011, there were over 400,000. The amount of temporary foreign workers accepted annually has now surpassed the amount of immigrants accepted as permanent residents.

The term temporary foreign worker can refer to anyone from youth on employment exchanges to professors teaching in Canada from abroad.

The temporary foreign workers at the most risk, however, are migrant workers.

Coming from countries like Guatemala, Mexico and the Philippines, these workers are hired to fill labour shortages in the Canadian economy. Granted entry on a work permit, they are usually tied to a specific employer for a set period of time and denied the right to seek any other employment.

In theory, these workers are guaranteed the same rights as Canadian workers. In reality, though, there are no guarantees.

Noé Arteaga Santos was a producer and host with Migrant Voices last summer. In 2008, he worked in a tomato greenhouse in Saint-Etienne-des-Gres for the company Savoura.

While there, he witnessed what he considered numerous human rights violations in the workplace. One such instance, he said, occurred to a Guatemalan co-worker who was forced to apply pesticides without proper equipment.

“They never explained to him the problems that could be caused by pesticide exposure, and this person went crazy. They refused to take him to the hospital,” recalled Santos. “They said it would be a waste of time.”

When two weeks passed with no change, even after speaking with the Guatemalan Consulate, Santos said that he and others refused to work until their co-worker received medical care.

Both he and the co-worker were fired and deported within days. Santos also claimed that he received no explanation for his dismissal, and his plane ticket home was deducted from his salary.

Back home, he returned to the agency he had been contracted through, the International Organization for Migration.

“They told me that I was a bad worker and that I had made death threats to some of my former co-workers,” he said.

Santos returned to Canada under refugee status in the fall of 2008 in search of answers. He has since filed a case with the Commission des Relations du Travail.

Migrant Voices started last year with the mandate of bringing the stories of workers like Santos to the public. The program, broadcasted on CKUT and other community radio stations, “tells the stories of migrant workers struggles for survival and dignity in Montreal,” says Koch.

“These people are trying to find decent work which is impossible to find in their country of origin,” he said.

Migrant workers attend workshops in audio production and narrative creation that enable them to write and record their own struggles.

“It’s about not speaking on behalf of other people; it’s about creating a space where people can speak for themselves,” says Koch.

Koch has organized a benefit concert on Saturday, November 3 at Café L’Artère to raise money for the Immigrant Workers Centre. It will feature migrant workers stories and music from artists like Stefan Christoff, Mussaver and James Irwin.

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