March 09, 2009

When many people think of worker exploitation, the first thing that comes to mind is a sweatshop in a foreign country, something far away and detached from most. But worker exploitation is not as foreign as some might think.

With Canada being seen as a welcoming and accepting nation for newcomers, it may be a surprise that many immigrants here are exploited.

Certain barriers including language, culture, and documentation put immigrants in a vulnerable position. Consequently, many newcomers are reduced to manual labour and will accept whatever work is available to them in order to provide for their families.

In the past five years, accusations have been made in the news about underpaid Chinese workers in the oil sands of Alberta, Mexican migrant farm workers in British Columbia and overqualified nurses from the Philippines.

Workers without sufficient language ability are easily taken advantage of, and completely undocumented workers are at the mercy of their employers.

In spite of the difficulties immigrant workers face, they do have a few options at the local level. The Workersʼ Action Centre (WAC) in Toronto is “a worker-based organization committed to improving the lives and working conditions of people in low-wage and unstable employment,” according to the organizationʼs website. The majority of these employees are recent immigrants.

Chris Ramsaroop is a legal aid worker who works with and advocates for WAC.
“Itʼs an extremely important organization in the city,” he says, “and a leading organization in fighting for workers’ rights in the province.”

There are two main aspects to his work with WAC. First, he educates newcomers about Canadian labour laws and their limitations, and second, he works towards changing these laws, so that they are more worker-friendly.

He recommends that any workers, especially immigrants, who feel mistreated or taken advantage of at work should make a visit to WAC and explore their personal and legal options.

“We individualize problems,” Ramsaroop says, “but itʼs not the worker’s fault when an employer is exploiting them. We need to come together to push for change.”

Organizations like the Workersʼ Action Centre show that in the end, it is not the idealized, internationalized Canadian community that recent immigrants will depend on, but their local community, full of people all facing the same issues and inequalities.

Originally published on as part of the Global Voices program