Work has been at the centre of the South Asian experience in Canada, beginning with the very first individuals who migrated to British Columbia in the early 1900s – without family – seeking employment. Part of the discourse used by those opposing South Asians settling in Canada was based on a fear of white Canada being "threatened" as well as a belief of who would be best suited to work in Canada. More recently, the conversation shifts again to consider unemployment, underemployment and poverty as a growing number of highly skilled South Asian Canadians experience marginalization in the work place. The realities of credentialism and racialized poverty cannot be ignored.
South Asians represent the largest number of racialized individuals in Canada, are ¼ of the total racialized workforce or 4% of the total workforce of Canada. Most South Asian workers live and work in Ontario and British Columbia (and more specifically, Toronto and Vancouver, and surrounding areas). While most South Asian workers in Canada are well-educated, they are under-represented in managerial and skilled occupations and over-represented in semi-skilled and low-skilled occupations. These trends are based on the 2006 Census – and given the dramatic shifts in the economy since then, it is likely that they have been exacerbated.
Labour Struggles - Farm Workers Resistance:
In British Columbia, South Asian workers have played an incredibly insistent role in resisting labour exploitation, especially in the context of farm work. The bulk of farmworkers in BC have been of South Asian origin (and in particular, older women), though this is changing given the province’s establishing the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). The living and working conditions of racialized farmworkers from the 1970s through to today can be described as harsh and exploitative. Establishing first the Labour Advocacy and Research Association (LARA) in 1978 to process farm pickers’ claims against labour contractors; then the Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee (FWOC) in 1970 to engage in actions against growers, advocating to government officials, etc.; and in 1980, the Canadian Famworkers Union (CFU) was established; several South Asian Canadians engaged in labour organizing.
“At last, the farmworkers have a union! This evening we are here to celebrate. The founding of the Farmworkers Union is indeed an historic occasion. This is the first union in the farm industry in the history of Canada … It is indeed incredible that in this day and age and in a country like Canada, a whole section of workers should be compelled to earn their living in such deplorable and discriminatory conditions as farmworkers face. It is clear that farmworkers are not considered to be like other workers – that they are denied the status of workers in Canadian society. … They have simply been left at the mercy of the contractors and farmers. And we can well imagine the consequences that follow. Long hours of back-breaking work, exposed not only to hazards such as roasting heat and freezing rain, but also to seriously injurious pesticides and other chemicals; wages that often do not amount to more than a dollar or two an hour if you add up all the hours expended in traveling and the cuts taken by the contractors; wages that do not even get paid on time.”
- Raj Chouhan, president of Local 1 of the Canadian Farmworkers Union, at its founding convention on April 6, 1980.
In 1983, the British Columbia Human Rights Commission issued a report after a series of hearing on conditions in agriculture, and stated that the British Columbia government was “allowing farmworkers to toil under inhuman conditions in a system built on racism.” Terrible working conditions continue and immigrant farmworkers lack secure income. With the SWAP expanding, the demographic composition of BC’s farmworkers is shifting. As one report states
“Although immigrants and migrants fall into separate legal categories, as farmworkers, they both suffer from a complex, confusing and controlling system that frequently exploits, threatens and silences them while too often placing their lives in danger.” 1
The efforts of the CFU continue to impact labour conversations, as the union (which functions as a voice and a social movement for farmworkers) pushes for better working conditions for farmworkers in British Columbia, in particular after several avoidable deaths.
1 David Fairey et al. 2008. Cultivating Farmworker Rights: Ending the Exploitation of Immigrant and Migrant Farmworkers in B.C. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office, Justicia for Migrant Workers, Progressive Intercultural Community Services and BC Federation of Labour. Page 7.
Race, Immigration and Poverty:
A 2012 Metcalf Foundation report found that “low-income status is associated with immigration in both the working and the non-working poor Toronto populations.”2 There are explicit connections between race, immigration and poverty, which is connected to two realities:
- The devaluing of credentials (academic background and/or work experience) from foreign countries in spite of an immigration system that explicitly seeks highly skilled migrants.
With the introduction of the points system in the 1960s, and the increasingly high requirements in terms of “skills” for those wanting to migrate, a gaping divide has developed. This divide is between the requirements of those who make it through the immigration system and the everyday experience of finding meaningful employment in Canada. Internationally trained professionals and their allies have been demanding an overhaul of the way credentials are assessed and valued, for decades now.
- The ever-increasing connection between race and poverty, where racialized individuals experience poverty at disproportionately high rates.
While poverty rates amongst white Canadians in the Toronto area have decreased over the past several decades, they have risen dramatically amongst racialized populations. These rates are directly connected to racialized communities experiencing greater food insecurity, experiencing health issues, being under-housed, etc. Anti-poverty activists (such as Ontario’s Colour of Poverty – Colour of Change Network) are interested in bringing to the forefront the issue of colour-coded poverty, through research, advocacy and community initiatives.
2 Stapleton, John, Brian Murphy and Yue Xing. 2012. The “Working Poor” in the Toronto Region: Who they are, where they live, and how trends are changing. The Metcalf Foundation. Page 11.
Community organizations including the Workers Action Centre, No One Is Illegal, Justicia for Migrant Workers as well as unions and local labour councils across the country have been engaged in anti-racist, equity focused organizing. These groups have amongst their organizers and rank numerous individuals of South Asian origin, work to make connections across marginalized groups, and mobilize to achieve a place of social justice that does not exploit migrants or racialized individuals.
Block, Sheila and Grace-Edward Galabuzi. 2011. Canada’s Colour Coded Labour Market: The gap for racialized workers. The Wellesley Institute. http://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Colour_Coded_Labour_MarketFINAL.pdf
Stapleton, John, Brian Murphy and Yue Xing. 2012. The “Working Poor” in the Toronto
Region: Who they are, where they live, and how trends are changing. The Metcalf Foundation. http://metcalffoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Working-Poor-in-Toronto-Region.pdf
Tran, Kelly, Jennifer Kaddatz and Paul Allard. 2005. South Asians in Canada: Unity through diversity. Canadian Social Trends. 78.
David Fairey et al. 2008. Cultivating Farmworker Rights: Ending the Exploitation of Immigrant and Migrant Farmworkers in BC. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office, Justicia for Migrant Workers, Progressive Intercultural Community Services and BC Federation of Labour. http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/BC_Office_Pubs/bc_2008/bc_farmworkers_full.pdf