Migrant Worker Advocacy in Guelph and May Day

Friday, April 27, 2012


By Erica Ryan

This is a transcript of an interview Erica Ryan did in late March 2012 with MaryCarl Guiao, co-founder and organizer with Fuerza/Puwersa, and host and producer of Migrant Matters Radio. Guiao spoke about the future of immigrants’ rights in Canada, the May Day movement, and connecting struggles to unleash fundamental social transformation.

Edited for length, read the full interview at www.guelphpeak.org/volume51issue6/maydayguelph.

Erica: Today I’m here, in a humble long-time downtown eatery, enjoying a cup of tea with MaryCarl Guiao, co-founder of Fuerza/Puwersa, a migrant worker advocacy group. Tell us about Fuerza/Puwersa.

MaryCarl: Well, most members of our group have been working with Fuerza/Puwersa since its inception in the fall of 2008. All members contribute their time and energy voluntarily, and we’re comprised of working class people with immigrant and racialized backgrounds, as well as allies, living within the Guelph community; most of us are students.

A major common drive of our group members is our passion to widen mainstream consciousness about the detrimental effects of imperialism and pervasive corporate capitalism. With this group, we’re able to help tackle a portion of the effects of globalized capitalism led by the Global North, and help raise awareness about how, specifically Canada, is intentionally, economically, socially, and systemically benefiting from and spawning poverty throughout the Global South.

One effect of imperialism and corporate globalization that our work primarily focuses on is the escalating repression, deportations, and scapegoating of low-income migrants by the Canadian government, which is currently the new Harper majority.

We organize events both on campus and within the broader Guelph community to promote in-depth discussion about the injustices faced by migrant workers under the Canadian immigration system. This includes migrants being paid very low wages, facing abuse and violations of their rights at the workplace, having almost no legal protections in general, and being constantly under threat of deportation at the whim of their employer. The overwhelming majority of them have no path to permanent residency. The continued inaction by government precludes any real resolution of these problems. These conditions only work to ensure that a growing number of migrants are disposable, exploited labour. We’ve also organized events that shed light on the related issues of human migration, human displacement, racism, the continued povertization of people from the Global South, xenophobia, and how the Canadian ruling class is complicit in all this locally and internationally. As well, we’ve held events helping expose the injustices suffered by low income people who immigrated here from the Global South, who are refugees and who are labeled as “non-status”. We aim to facilitate having all these people and their priorities and stories, which have all been ignored, downplayed and deemed unimportant, receive the honour they deserve by bringing forth their stories to the public.

And I should clarify that when I say status, I’m referring to immigration status. One can be categorized as being non-status in a few ways. For many, they were once state-authorized to reside and work within Canada on a visa or temporary work permit, but without the full legal status of a citizen or the “nearly full” status of permanent resident.  However, if their permit expires, they then become non-status and are also labeled as “undocumented” or “illegal”.  These terms also refer to people who cross state borders after having been unapproved for or without seeking state authorization, who are neither citizens nor permanent residents. The reasons for issuing non-approvals are always greatly unjust, demoralizing, and rooted in a racist, classist, and colonial narrative.

A person is in a very precarious situation if their residence or refugee status becomes less secure or is in limbo because being labeled as being non-status, undocumented, and illegal can bring frightening risks and consequences. Having precarious status exacerbates dependence, keeps people vulnerable of being super-exploited and abused, and negatively affects their overall health. For example, since Harper and “Minister of Censorship and Deportation” Jason Kenney took office in 2006, Canada’s national security policies have changed the definition of acceptable policing in Canada to include racial profiling and harassing people at women’s crisis shelters. As a result, people with precarious status have an increased difficulty accessing public services like police services, women’s shelters, and health care services.

This terminology stuff is irritating, I know.

Erica: Ya, and can get confusing to the lay person. From the description on your Facebook account, it says that “Above all and central to our work, is to be an effective ally to migrant racialized working-class people themselves, prioritizing their dignity and agency, and working to ensure they have a central position in what we do.” Touch upon that.

MaryCarl: Sure. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants seeking decent work have come to Canada through the ever expanding Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). This has made it such that it is likely you have walked by or come to talk to someone working under the TFWP. There’s an even greater chance that a Thai migrant worker has served you or someone you know coffee at Tim Hortons, you have met someone who has employed a Filipina migrant worker to take care of their children or elderly relative, or the food on your table has been grown, picked and/or packed by a Jamaican migrant worker. Most Canadians except this without question as part of our supposedly multicultural landscape, but many don't realize that these are migrant workers in Canada who are providing cheap labour, and in turn don't enjoy the same rights as Canadian citizens or residents.

Although we’ve been more involved with this in the past, our group plans to continue to work on being allies, “on the ground”, so to speak, with people who work under the TFWP in Canada.

So far, Fuerza/Puwersa have provided support to and worked with people working under different programs of the TFWP. We’ve worked with women working under the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP); as well as those working as agricultural workers – mostly through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the so-called “Low Skilled” Workers Program (LSWP). We haven’t yet worked with people working under the TFWP as so-called “exotic” dancers or workers in so-called “high-skilled” occupations. The people we’ve built relationships with who work under the LCP mostly live in Guelph, and the people we work to build relationships with working under the SAWP and the LSWP, well, we drive to various locations throughout Southern Ontario to provide whatever support is needed. Support has come in various forms including: citizen volunteers acting as translators; providing help with the workers’ transportation via bike donations or helping shuttling people with our parents’ vehicles; organizing “Know Your Rights” workshops; health fairs; and socials like potlucks and camping events. All the while our group's intentions are to help them gain access to supports that they need or are useful to them, while simultaneously providing more opportunities for these people to grow as humans; to have time to socialize and explore their interests; to be treated as someone who is not just a doormat – a worker some boss can overwork and underpay because no one's there to hold them accountable.

While doing this work, we’re constantly deepening our understanding about the importance of having the migrant worker justice movement led and overseen by the people working under these migrant worker programs. Being in the presence of people working as migrant workers, we also become more conscious of the unearned assets that our Canadian birth certificates come with, which are denied to migrants. For instance, the wide range of job opportunities with labour law complying practices available to us, how some may even fall on our laps, the opportunities to apply for jobs that we are interested in doing, and the opportunities to move to a job within the same industry with a greater salary and benefits. These conditions are what dreams are made of for people working here as migrant workers. To hold a job that provides financial security, is unionized, and that provides workers with strong bargaining power when it comes to negotiating agreements is beyond their wildest dreams. While hanging out with people working under the TFWP, we're also constantly reminded of another provision of Western privilege: being able to speak English eloquently and without an accent shifts everyone’s attitude towards you, attracting more respectful treatment. You only see the tip of the iceberg of how difficult it is for these people to exercise their right to dignity and self-determination when you befriend people working as migrant workers. People of the Global North have a lot of work to do in order to do away with social structures and systems based on oppression that enable realities like this.

One more thing, the name Fuerza/Puwersa came to be because most of our support work with people working as migrant workers was with those who were Spanish and Filipino speaking. "Fuerza" means strength in Spanish and "Puwersa" means strength in Tagalog, which is one of the main dialects spoken in the Philippines.

Erica: I'm glad you explained that, I was wondering how the name was chosen. I noticed that Fuerza/Puwersa released a poster recently on Facebook calling out for help with Fuerza/Puwersa’s annual May Day Potluck and Panel Discussion. Fourth Annual, Congratulations.  Why is Fuerza/Puwersa organizing a May Day Potluck and Panel Discussion?

MaryCarl: Well, I’ll begin with explaining what May Day is. May Day is an annual event celebrated on May 1st. It’s a day devoted to workers’ rights, and the honouring of those participating in the struggles of working-class people throughout the world and history. It’s celebrated internationally; it’s also known as International Workers' Day. Apparently May Day first became an official holiday in the 1880s in the United States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day.

Three years ago, we were inspired to build on the history of the labour movement within Guelph, and incorporate a focus on the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights and migrant justice. We were especially inspired by our experiences working with many immigrant women working under the Live-in Caregiver Program in and around Guelph. At that point, we’d been doing that for a year. We also felt it was incredibly important to spread the stories of people who are at the frontlines of immigrant justice struggles. These are the people we book to speak at the potlucks. We felt May Day was a great day to do this, plus almost everyone we knew loved potlucks. So, those were the prime reasons that moved us to organize the May Day Potluck.  During this particular time, Toronto’s annual May Day of Action rally and march for Status for all organized by No One Is Illegal-Toronto (NOII-TO) had already created a momentum with similar intentions.  Fuerza/Puwersa members were very pumped about the idea of having a Guelph contingent participating in such a massive immigrant rights demonstration, so, accompanying the potluck, often a few days after, we hold a trip to the NOII-TO’s march.  We promote it as the “Guelph Workers’ Solidarity Bus”.  For the past two years, another May Day event has been going on in Toronto: The International Workers' Day (IWD) rally and march.  Fuerza/Puwersa has also been organizing a presence at this march. The organizers are a coalition of working-class organizations and progressive allies called May 1st Movement.  This year will be the 7th annual May Day of Action march and it's being spearheaded by a partnership between NOII-TO, the May 1st Movement, and Occupy Toronto.  There's going to be May Day of Action events held throughout May 1st, as well as on days preceeding and proceeding the May Day of Action!  The cultural festival after the march will surely be one not to miss, it's being organized by the three groups too.   

Also, for those of you who don’t know, both NOII-TO and many of the organizations that are a part of the May 1st Movement, are grassroots migrant justice groups. Like, the Canadian Humanitarian Appeal for the Relief of Tamils, Migrante Ontario, and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front– Toronto. Many of these organizations are led by people with working class and migrant and/or racialized backgrounds. The work of these groups in general involves working within the system, such as applying pressure to create healthier policies at the workplace or within Federal or Provincial legislation; media making; and lots of event organizing and support work. Collectively they all fight for the liberation of all people, working in opposition to imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, poverty, militarization, racism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.  Allies Occupy Toronto is part of an international Occupy movement contributing to creating democracy and building a new economy based on equality, justice, accountability, and compassion.

Erica: How very exciting. What can we expect from attending the May Day Potluck and Panel?

MaryCarl: Well, there is an ongoing and increasing need to raise awareness about what is going on with the Canadian immigration system, its impacts, and why these things are happening. It’s disturbing; more and more Canada is acting like the United States. With the Tories in power, we can expect a deepening of their regressive reforms that attack immigrants and migrants. Such reforms have consistently and blatantly violated Canada’s obligations under the Canadian Charter, as well as a number of international human rights laws.

These were topics of focus at the May Day Potluck in 2009. The panel brought attention to the undeserved raids, detentions and deportations which happened that summer. The Canadian Border Services Agency and South Simcoe Police conducted US-style workplace and home raids on, and shortly after, deportations of over a hundred non-status workers. The unnecessary violence was happening in Simcoe, Toronto, Leamington and Windsor. They highlighted the dependence of both the Canadian ruling class and monopoly capitalism on poisoning the environment, as well as exploiting the masses by dividing them through campaigns encouraging discrimination and intolerance of people based on their ethnicity or origin. The panel featured community organizers of grassroots migrant justice organizations that had worked hard to raise awareness about the raids and hold the government accountable for its immoral use of power. A member of Justicia For Migrant Workers-Toronto, Migrante Ontario, and NOII-TO each spoke – all are independent, anti-imperial, racialized people-led groups that have low-income immigrants and migrants in central positions in the work they do.

Presenters from returnee groups NOII-TO, Migrante-Ontario, and first-time guest Canadian Humanitarian Appeal for the Relief of Tamils joined us for 2010’s May Day Potluck. Respectively, Mohan Mishra and Maru Maesa, who works as a live-in caregiver, alongside Pragash Antonipillai shared the stories of struggle of the communities that they are akin to, which are comprised of low income and working class immigrants. Their stories demonstrated the intensified trampling on free speech and democratic rights through the immigration system. Liz Rowley of the Community Party of Canada capped off the evening, speaking about the more militarist Canadian imperialism that we are seeing today, and on how Canada’s immigration system continues to place restrictions and pressures on immigrants, making it that much harder to get by. All speakers are involved with humanitarian, solidarity based, social-justice oriented work.

We were graced with Phillip Allen's presence at last year's potluck. As per contractual requests from his Canadian employer, from 2003 to 2007, Phillip had been migrating to Canada from Jamaica each year. He was working here for 8 months of the year under the SAWP. Phillip Allen's kidneys failed in July 2007 allegedly because of lack of protection provided by his employers on the job. Since then, Phillip has been on regular dialysis* to remain alive. He currently is fighting a deportation order. A second speaker, community organizer with the organization Barrio Nuevo, Pablo Vivanco, spoke about the hypocrisy of both the global economic system and Canadian imperialism promoting migration, while the Tory government is cracking down on migration; and Canadian imperialism making the home countries of increasing numbers of populations unlivable. Kripa Sekhar, Director of the South Asian Women's Center in Toronto informed us about the continued funding cuts of public services for immigrants and newcomers by the Harper Tories and spoke on what Canadian imperialism’s promotion of economic hardship means for women-identified immigrants. Migrante Ontario’s Marco Luciano critiqued the continuation of temporary worker programs that deny full status; the increased avenues to dehumanize and deport people through Canada's immigration system; as well as Canada’s military support for coups, invasions and occupations, such as in Haiti and Afghanistan.

With recent trends in immigration and refugee policy, we're seeing that the government is undermining any semblance of justice in terms of migrants and refugees' fundamental rights to constitutional protections of due process, equal protections, and fair procedures; and the number of people with precarious status in Canada is growing and will continue to do so. For example, on February 16th of this year, Kenney tabled Bill C-31, which is essentially an immigration “omnibus” bill comprised of some of the most brutal elements seen in past bills. Passing C-31 would entrench and intensify the deprivation of migrants and refugees' fundamental rights to due process; and allow for the increased and mandatory incarceration of refugees, the establishment of an unjust two-tier system of refugee protection, and reduce eligibility for Permanent Resident status for accepted refugees in Canada.

To find out more about Bill C-31, visit toronto.nooneisillegal.org

As another example, there is the unjust “double punishment”, which is experienced by some immigrant residents, especially immigrant youth. Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states that individuals who are not citizens can face deportation if they are convicted of a criminal offence in Canada. Poor immigrants are over-targeted and over-prosecuted by the police and courts. This is the case even more so for poor immigrant youth and youth of colour, making them more vulnerable to the act. On top of being subjected to this institutionalized racism and having to face criminal repercussions such as jail time, those experiencing “double punishment” are also forced to go through dealing with an often inhumane and cold Immigration and Refugee Board, and have the problem of being state-ordered to be deported.

I'd also like to mention that despite Canada being known as a nation of immigrants, in 2008 the number of people brought here under the TFWP surpassed the number of landed immigrants. Hence, at this year’s potluck we’re planning to continue the discussion on Harper and Kenney moving to heighten Canada's aggression towards immigrants, migrants, refugees, and new Canadians; as well as the move to close routes to legal immigration through permanent residency and the refugee process.

*Dialysis is a medical procedure used to provide an artificial replacement for one's kidneys when they are damaged and can no longer filter toxins from the blood. Without it, Phillip's kidneys will fail in less than ten days and he will die. His gravely ill-health has made it impossible for him to do the strenuous work required for people working under the SAWP, thus resulting in Phillip's unemployability.

Erica: Wonderful! How can people contact you to get more involved with Fuerza/Puwersa?

MaryCarl: Let us know how you’d like help us organize this year’s May Day Potluck! Email:

Erica: Thank you MaryCarl, for all your thorough answers. And keep it up.

- Fuerza/Puwersa

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