As an organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC), every day I see how the people who are the backbone of the working class experience the current economic crisis.
It is no longer exceptional for an immigrant with precarious status to have a job that pays minimum wage and includes no benefits or pension; it has become the norm.
Immigrant workers are a central part of the neoliberal strategy to ‘internalize outsourcing’. Rather than further ‘outsource’ labor, current governments choose to drastically escalate their ‘insourcing’ of cheap labour. Insourcing means that, rather than moving jobs to the global south, companies are filling thousands of jobs with immigrant workers who receive little money and work in horrible conditions. The lives of migrant and immigrant workers are where the effects of the current economic crisis are often most visible.
Temporary placement agencies are quickly becoming one of the most important tools for moving migrant and immigrant workers throughout the Canadian economy. These agencies create a more ‘flexible’ – which really means precarious and underpaid – workforce. In the past year alone, temporary placement agencies recorded over $2 billion in revenue, as industry seeks cheap labour, most of which comes from migrant workers. Largely as a result of the use of agencies, sectors that at one time provided permanent and unionized work, such as manufacturing and agriculture, are now staffed by a high percentage of temporary workers who receive no union protections.
One particularly stark example of the harsh conditions effectively imposed by temporary placement agencies, and the companies that use them, is Dollarama. Dollarama’s CEO, Larry Rossy, is one of Canada’s sixty richest people; in 2011, he was the 16th wealthiest person in Quebec, with a net worth of over $1 billion. One of the reasons that Rossy’s Dollarama is so profitable is that he keeps his workers in precarious and underpaid positions. He calls this a “minimum wage strategy,” implying that if he could pay his workers less, he would.
The Dollarama distribution centre in Montreal employs 500 workers – almost all non-white. Most of them are hired through temporary placement agencies. Even the workers who have been there for several years are still considered ‘temp’ workers, and have no benefits or pensions. Dollarama workers also experience an oppressive working environment: workers have reported being fired when they get ill, and staff are made to compete with one another just to retain their jobs stacking shelves.
In this context, building just and effective labour movement means communicating with and organizing temporary agency workers. These workers can be a source of strength in popular movements for economic justice that resist austerity measures, and attacks on collective bargaining and the right to strike.
Mostafa Henaway is an author and community organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre/Centre des Travailleurs et Travailleuses in Montreal. Contact the IWC at firstname.lastname@example.org.