Archive for June, 2010

My Toronto, unfortunately

June 25, 2010

I started out to write about the 80 striking Novotel workers down on the Esplanade, since they were supposed to have some reinforcements drop by later in the afternoon. Sure enough, the picket line was boisterous, the giant inflatable rat magnificent, and several were there from other places: not just CUPE but also workers from other hotel chains, as well as non-unionized colleagues from the two other Novotels, which are all owned by the French company Accor along with their Toronto Centre counterpart. With the French delegation to the G20 at the hotel, the union thought of shouting out a timely message.

The main issue on the table has been wages and benefits. All hotel workers face the same struggle, though some have it worse than others, explains Teferi, who works at the Royal York, “where conditions are much better. But we have to fight to get everyone to the same level. Some people are forced to do two jobs. They have no time for their families.” Yasmin is at the Courtyard Marriott and says there, workers are still waiting for the company to make an offer. She explains the unionized workers at 35 Toronto hotels would rather negotiate together, something the hotel chains oppose vigorously. According to the UNITE HERE Local 75 website, the number of hotel workers bargaining together in Toronto in 2010 is now 6000.

Then there’s the story of Rekha, a pro-union militant at the Mississauga Novotel, which has fought worker organization tooth and nail. She recounts numerous instances of management intimidation, including meetings during which workers were apparently told to think of how auto workers were unionized and lost their jobs as a result. Fired without cause, she was reinstated shortly after by a Labour Board decision. Since her hours as a food and beverage worker were reallocated to others, she was given far fewer shifts upon her return and has had to take out loans to make ends meet, she says. Rekha adds she’s not alone: one pro-union Ottawa Novotel worker was apparently fired because he “wasn’t happy enough there.” (Note to companies: workers create unions because there’s a legitimate reason why they are not happy, and the whole attitude thing connected to this, i.e., organizing unions, is in fact protected by Ontario law).

Rekha notes the industry is notoriously difficult to organize. The seasonal nature of the work and high turnover rates are a major factor. This said, UNITE HERE represents over 100,000 hotel workers across North America. UNITE stands for Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and HERE, for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. They merged in 2004.

The Novotel on the Esplanade sits on some prime real estate, a stone’s throw from the G20 Summit site and its notorious security fence. I walked a bit while it was still possible, since the fence was open. No one stopped to ask me for identification as several websites had warned me would happen, so I guess I didn’t look quite dangerous enough. Could be the grey hair. I’ve never seen so many police officers. Every street corner had at least two and the summit hasn’t even started yet. There were cops sitting down eating strawberries, cops leaning on their cars, cops standing around their bicycles, cops getting into boats, cops walking with their riot helmets bouncing off their thighs. Most of them looked profoundly bored, but it was a warm sunny day, despite the dire forecast of rain and thunder showers.

As I walked along the street, I wondered where all those police officers were when my neighbour was getting strangled in my old neighbourhood at Lawrence and Kingston Road. I phoned 911 when I saw a man attacking her in the hallway, and yelled out that I’d called police and they were on their way. The attacker looked up at me and snarled that I was next, “bitch”. It took the cops three hours to show up. The station is right down the road, not even a kilometre away. Somehow my neighbour didn’t die and the guy left, but what if he hadn’t. She wasn’t in the Esplanade, or attending a summit of world leaders, whose heads are each worth, apparently, 500 times more cops than hers, before anything even happens.

I walked up Bay. At Adelaide a thin man sat on the sidewalk, bent over in misery. He held out his cup. It was filled with pennies, right there in the heart of the financial district, where workers wear suits worth more than this man will likely collect in a year. When I dropped in what I could, he thanked me so effusively it sounded like he’d run into Santa Claus.

That alone was enough to remind me why we need change.

(Pictures : striking workers are here and fence here)

Migrant workers in Canada a focus of pre-G20 proceedings in Toronto

June 21, 2010

Cross posted at Canada Meets World

Did you know that agriculture tops the list when it comes to workplace fatalities in Canada? Yet, in Alberta, migrant workers aren’t covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – and in every Canadian province, all foreign workers are vulnerable to reprisals if they protest unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, both Alberta and Ontario prohibit unionization of migrant agricultural workers.

As Toronto gears up to host the so-called G20 summit with what former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was instrumental in designating the world’s most powerful economies in South as well as North, many voices beg to differ on who should decide the fate of the world. Among the most dispossessed of these voices are some representing those who labour to produce what the world eats, or otherwise consumes. Migrant workers are now a fixture of North-South value transfers, their flight serving to palliate lacunae in employment opportunities within their home countries as their low-cost, easily manipulated labour fills the gaps in host economies.

As one of those hosts, Canada has allowed employers to benefit from migrant work for over 40 years. The federal government administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP). The number of workers involved, most of them from Mexico and the Caribbean, has jumped from 5,000 in 1978 to over 20,000 by 2006. Tied to a single employer, these workers are vulnerable to deportation should they speak up about health and safety violations or substandard living and working conditions. None of them are eligible for overtime, holiday premiums or vacation pay. They also have Employment Insurance premiums deducted from their paychecks, but very few know of any opportunity to receive benefits.

This is something the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada (UFCW) is working to change. Since 2002, the union has provided information to workers through support centres. In 2008, it created the Agriculture Workers Alliance which now operates nine agricultural worker support centres across Canada, helping to file health insurance and prescription claims, intervening in repatriation and helping with tax forms, workers’ compensation, vacation pay, and parental benefits.

To counter the G20 summit agenda, the UFCW held the No Rights, No Rules: Migrant Workers in a Globalized World conference, in English and Spanish, in Toronto on June 20. One panel outlined the global situation and the general situation in Canada; the other panel let workers tell their stories.

As UFCW president Wayne Hanley pointed out from the start of the conference, the union’s slogan is “if you’re good enough to work here in Canada, you’re good enough to stay here.” Stan Raper, the national representative from UFCW’s National Organization Department, observed that some agricultural workers don’t want to stay in Canada and be residents. “I understand that,” he said, “but why not give them status so they can come and go as they please?” He compared the existing visa system to slavery, under which whoever isn’t “a good boy” can be deported.

At present, only residency status can end this vulnerable state. However, activists such as Max Correa, Secretary General of the Mexico-based Central Campesina Cardenista, believe the true solution is genuine free movement of labour, accompanied by genuine guarantees of workers’ rights, to go with the free trade of goods and services under NAFTA. He pointed out during a videoconference interview that many migrants are forced to leave their land as a result of the devastation and pollution wrought by Canadian mining companies.

NAFTA, however, won’t help anyone from outside North America. Filipino activist Marco Luciano outlined how migrant worker programs affected his own country of origin. Filipino migration has occurred since Spanish colonization hundreds of years ago. In the early 1900s, large numbers were sent to the Americas to work in plantations. By 1929, 18 % of Hawaiians were Filipinos, working as fruit pickers and farm workers. During the Great Depression, thousands were deported. Some workers stayed in California to pick grapes for vineyards, others went as far as Alaska.

In the Philippines proper, 75 per cent of Filipinos depend on the land, most of which is owned by a few landlords. Produce tends to be cash crops such as flowers, pineapple and asparagus rather than subsistence crops such as rice. Farm workers are the lowest paid of all. The only urban sources of income are factories, garment shops and export processing zone companies owned by multinational corporations.

Luciano observed that the Filipino government acts as a broker for international interests: with the export-oriented, import-dependent country subject to massive unemployment, the government has endorsed a labour export policy which provides an outlet to diffuse social unrest, addresses the unemployment problem and brings foreign currency through remittances totalling $18 billion in 2009. In that same year, one million Filipinos left their country as migrant workers, at the rate of 3,000 per day. Canada is host to the lion’s share of these: 400,000, 185,000 of whom come to the GTA. The systematization of migrant worker exports has been practically enshrined by the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which touts remittances as foreign aid and migration as a tool for development.

Angela Rankin, who visits agricultural migrant workers in Canada and counsels them on their rights, spoke of the living and working conditions she witnessed on farms in Ontario. In one instance, there were 20 beds in a single room. In another, workers were forbidden to shelter from the rain during downpours and thunderstorms. She informed the audience many workers were afraid to come to the conference for fear of being deported. “At the end of the day, without them, we would not have anything to eat,” she pointed out.

Of the workers who spoke about their experiences, many remained anonymous, fearing reprisals, as moderator Sonia Singh explained. Many face fraud upon arrival in Canada. One male caregiver paid $8,000 USD, only to discover his employer did not exist. The agency which had promised him work told him he would have difficulty getting a job because he was a man. Finally, after several months, he found work in construction, which he had never done before. However, this caused problems with immigration authorities. He is now awaiting a ruling on his case.

Another worker came in from Jamaica to work as a chef in a resort in Northern Ontario. After three months of training, 20 people in her group were told their contract was terminated. They lost their $1,000 fee and had to pay their airfare back home. Then, she discovered the work she obtained was only part-time and occasional. The mother of four children was left with paychecks of no more than $100 a piece in some cases, in addition to having to pay rent. The group had no means of going to the bank or buying food. “This country has not been good to me,” she observed. Soon she will be returning home.

One live-in caregiver described her extensive experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada. Caregivers are overworked, maltreated and underpaid, as well as often subjected to sexual harassment. Workers are separated from their families for years, facing isolation and potential alienation.

Even though it is now illegal for agencies to collect placement fees from live-in caregivers coming to work in Canada – a legal provision that has yet to be applied to other migrant workers – many still pay because of the crushing poverty and unemployment in their home countries, as Gina Bahiwal testified on behalf of the Underdog Project. “Most of us are college and university graduates. We expected to live in a nice house, at least a comfortable house”, but the building in which she was housed by the agency was old and dilapidated, she explained. There were nine people living in a three-bedroom apartment and six to eight people in a two-bedroom one. Workers were not free to join organizations or to meet with other Filipinos in Canada. The agency tried to frighten workers by threatening not to renew work permits. “People were afraid of losing their jobs, not being able to feed their families”. Two weeks ago, the agent brought contracts and said that without cash, there would be no copy of the contract. People paid, but got no receipts and no copies of any contracts. “We want these abuses to stop. We are here for them, speaking on their behalf”, said Bahiwal.

In short, some victories have been obtained in law, but to have these enforced and respected is still another matter. One obstacle is the lack of information workers have before coming to Canada, and in some cases after their arrival. Organizations such as the UFCW and the AWA seek to redress the balance.

Pre-G20 People’s Summit in Toronto: the real deal on maternal health

June 20, 2010

Cross-posted at Canada meets World

What does it take to really help mothers stay healthy? An Amnesty International presentation on maternal mortality in Peru in the context of Millennial Development Goals, part of the People’s Summit held in Toronto June 18-20 to oppose the upcoming G20 forum for the world’s richest economies, provided some answers.

In Peru, the to-do list is likely longer than Canadian International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s. There’s a need for social change to empower women’s decision-making, roads for people to get to health centres, bilingual people fluent in Quechua and English and… perhaps to start, a budget for the Maternal Mortality National Plan. That’s right: with one of the highest maternal death rates in the Americas at 185 per 100,000, Peru has allocated no money at all to improve the situation. Meanwhile, U.N. estimates of maternal mortality are closer to 240 deaths per 100,000. Why the discrepancy? Ruth Mier y Terán Moscoso, responsible for campaigns and training in the Peruvian section of Amnesty International, points out the government has a vested interest in keeping maternal mortality rate reports as low as possible. Bigger issues, of course, need bigger solutions, which cost more money.

Presumably, this is the kind of problem the Harper government in Canada intended to solve, and should solve, with its maternal health initiative for developing countries, $1 billion over five years, which initially excluded any sort of birth control funding and still excludes abortion services. There’s just one thing: women need to control more of their lives, and their governments, for any real progress to happen.

Each year, some 500,000 women worldwide die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of 5, according to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) statistics. About 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications. That’s just the start of issues recorded during the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as noted by Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Campaigner Lindsay Mossman. At the heart of maternal health is the need for the mother to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her reproductive choices, from age of marriage to contraception use. Once this is secured, mothers need access to care.

Marrying young puts mothers at risk. Women from 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from pregnancy. Women under 15? Five times as likely. Choice is crucial. In Peru’s rural communities, the hardest-hit by poverty and lack of health care, choice is something women don’t have, explains Mier y Terán Moscoso. The power of women is an issue, as only men (with the exception of widows) have the right to vote in local assemblies. Women have no choice about having children, she says. It depends on the husband.

At the systemic level, abortion is currently illegal in Peru except to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Whoever seeks an abortion without being at risk faces two years in prison and the doctors performing it, four years. Ambiguity over what constitutes a health risk makes doctors hesitant to perform any abortions at all, says Mier y Terán Moscoso.

Meanwhile, rural areas are the hardest hit by a lack of access to health care, with subsequently higher maternal death rates. Eight out of ten communities in Peru rated as extremely poor are in rural areas. Many have indigenous populations and 40 per cent of indigenous people have no identity papers, which must be obtained in Spanish. Therefore, they have no access to universal health care. Physical access is also a problem: 51 per cent of all communities have no health centre at all. Half of those who do have only a first-aid post. And while the government has paved roads for exploration of mining and oil rights, many rural communities with human beings as their only resource have no roads at all.

Meanwhile, when doctors do appear, they may face extremely difficult conditions, working very long hours. They do not speak indigenous languages, so that in the absence of interpreter services, they won’t be able to communicate with patients. Women in rural indigenous communities are less likely to speak Spanish than men. For this reason, they may also face difficulties in taking medicine as prescribed. As a result of all these factors, only 36 per cent of women in rural areas go to a health care centre or see a health care professional.

Therefore, the picture of health goes beyond the wish or intention to provide services. Empowering women helps take away much of the risk of pregnancy and birth. Helping communities gain access to health care can involve more than training or hiring doctors, and may involve substantial investments in infrastructure, as well as cultural training to better harmonize accredited practice with traditional care and customs. And, of course, once the children are born, they matter, at the very least, every bit as much as when they were in the womb. Healthy mothers are the main part of the development solution.

Toward these ends, Amnesty International has produced a report entitled Fatal Flaws – barriers to maternal health in Peru. The Canadian Chapter also has a wealth of information about the issue worldwide on its “End Maternal Mortality” blog.