Arshdeep Singh, a 30-year-old Punjabi semi-truck driver in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, was left with a bloodied lip after his group’s protest on July 9 outside Sukh Auto, an auto repair shop. Singh was attacked by the shop owner, Sukhdeep Hunjan, and a handful of goons.
It was one of said goons who threw the punch that busted Singh’s mouth. Then Hunjan, a squat boss in a tan shirt, black pants, and blue sneakers, called the police—not to report the assault, but to report the protest.
The Peel Regional Police promptly sent 10 cop cars to the scene, but that didn’t stop the crowd of about 100 from chanting “Lutt band karo! (Stop the robbery!),” and other choice slogans.
This was the second protest outside Sukh Auto that Naujawan Support Network (NSN) had held in a matter of months. Both protests were designed to pressure Hunjan to pay back wages stolen from former employee Rupinder Singh by publicly naming and shaming the boss. (A note for readers: While a number of them share the last name Singh, none of the persons interviewed for this piece are related to one another.)
The sign for the shop is now gone—and, according to members of NSN, Hunjan has changed the name of his business on Google.
Bold, militant protests like these are happening with increased frequency in Brampton, resulting in big wins for workers who have been exploited and taken advantage of for too long. And yet, the Toronto-area group’s emergence as a powerful grassroots force fighting for worker justice has been among the least reported labor stories in North America’s settler colonies over the past year (with some very limited exceptions).
Through campaigns reliant largely on direct action, NSN has managed to fight and win back over $200,000 CAD ($154,000 USD) in stolen wages for its members. The organization of about 100 mostly Punjabi immigrant workers and students (“Naujawan” translates to “young people” in Punjabi) is a little over a year old.
At the core of NSN is a dedicated group of volunteers and workers who connect with and support other workers who have experienced wage theft or other forms of exploitation. Mobilizing workers and community members to take collective action, like the protests in front of Sukh Auto, is an integral part of the organization’s mission—and a crucial source of its strength.
“Our benchmark—our filter—for organizing is that a worker has to be willing to come to an organizing meeting and fight for their rights while standing alongside other workers,” Simran Dhunna, a 26-year-old NSN organizer, told TRNN.
After gathering all the facts about a situation that workers have brought to NSN’s attention, the group’s next step is to reach out to the employer to attempt to resolve the issue. Most of the time, unsurprisingly, employers show little interest in coming to such a resolution or complying with the demands of their former workers.
At that point, the group turns to its bread and butter: naming and shaming employers, like Hunjan, at their places of business, at their homes, and on social media. They also initiate boycotts of businesses that have stiffed workers.
In the contemporary North American labor movement, these tactics may strike some as perhaps too aggressive or militant. But they are working.
Moreover, the sense of empowerment and forward movement that members get from working through NSN is on full display at their gatherings. Attendees at the demonstration proudly and poignantly proclaimed “I know my rights!” And they do—and that knowledge is an essential form of power.
Like so many working people, Gurjeet Singh, an original member of NSN, says that he had no idea what rights and standards of treatment he was fully entitled to at work before he joined NSN, but the last year has given him a crash course and helped him see the importance of fighting for justice collectively. “This is how we build up NSN,” he told TRNN.
Rupinder Singh, 32, told TRNN that before he joined NSN, “I knew my vacation pay [rights], but I didn’t know my other rights.” Upon attending his first NSN-organized event, however, he realized how many other workers are in the same situation, and how easily that lack of knowledge about their rights can be taken advantage of by employers. “When I joined the meeting, I saw so many cases [of exploitation in other industries] like trucking and food,” Singh noted. He also became aware of a wide variety of other problems, like health and safety issues and employers who requested bribes in exchange for support for permanent residency applications.
Seeing how widespread these problems are, and being in a shared space where workers and organizers are coming together to do something about them, has Rupinder Singh and others fired up. “I am feeling very proud to be part of NSN… an organization directly taking on the employer head to head,” Singh told TRNN.
While simultaneously giving individual workers an understanding of their rights in the workplace and a sense of empowerment and support, being part of an organization like NSN has also stoked a collective fervor to take action and address systemic issues plaguing working people. And the more progress they make, the more emboldened they become. For NSN’s members, their understanding of the importance of what they’re doing is palpable.
“If we won’t take action right now, it will jeopardize the future of many people,” says 24-year-old Devender Singh, citing the problem of a transient labor force and an increasingly entrenched system of exploitation. “This organization is shaking the roots.”
In the case of Sukh Auto, it was Rupinder Singh himself who had roughly $4,000 CAD in wages and vacation pay stolen from him by the shop owner Hunjan. Hence, much to Hunjan’s chagrin, NSN has blasted out “chor (thief)” alerts with Hunjan’s name and picture on social media and on physical signs.
For example, in November and December of 2020, his first two months on the job, Rupinder Singh was paid only $600 CAD, in cash. Hunjan told his new employee that the meager pay was justified because he was in “training,” but Ontario law requires workers to be paid for employer-mandated training in most instances. In fact, NSN’s figures show that the actual, full wages Singh should have received for his time on the clock during those first two months amounted to over $2,900 CAD.
Singh was also denied vacation pay after Hunjan falsely claimed that only full-time workers were entitled to vacation pay under the law. “This is my country, I am a citizen, I know the rules,” Singh recalls Hunjan telling him.
Eventually, in June 2021, Singh quit his job at the auto repair shop, but he persisted in his efforts to gain back his stolen wages and vacation pay. In January of this year, in response to his persistent efforts, Hunjan asked Singh to come to his office. However, instead of receiving the stolen wages he was owed, let alone an apology, Singh told TRNN that, when he showed up to meet with Hunjan, his former boss became aggressive and nearly hit him with a shovel.
Rupinder Singh’s stolen wages still haven’t been paid. But now, because they have had the audacity to fight back against exploitation and assert their rights, he and NSN have been hit with a $515,000 CAD defamation suit by the squat auto repair shop owner.
Speaking with TRNN, Singh emphasized how upsetting it was to be taken advantage of by a boss with whom he ostensibly had so much in common. “I feel that it’s bad, because this Punjabi guy [did this to me]. He lived 24 km from my city [in Punjab]—he’s from Jalandhar and I’m from Ludhiana.”
Hunjan, for his part, does not seem to enjoy being called out and shamed as a chor:
And that’s the point.
Rupinder Singh is not the only Punjabi worker in the Toronto area who feels a sense of betrayal as a new immigrant defrauded by established members of his own community.
Speaking into the microphone to the assembled crowd at the protest outside Sukh Auto, Dhunna, the NSN organizer, estimated that perhaps 80% of the businesses on Rutherford Road South in Brampton engaged in similar acts of wage theft.
The problem of immigrant workers being exploited is “both widespread and old,” Navyug Gill, a US-based historian and native of the greater Toronto area, told TRNN. Gill, who is 39 years old, is a supporter of NSN and a community member close to the project.
When he began sharing the group’s posts on social media, Gill’s friends in his Punjabi community flooded him with stories of “this kind of exploitation happening to [their] parents and uncles and aunts from back in the ’60s and ’70s to now.” He also recounts that other friends from the greater Toronto area—Palestinian friends, Vietnamese and Jamaican friends, Turkish friends—have told him how “this is going on in our restaurants, in construction work, and in small manufacturing.”
The two aspects that characterize this kind of intra-community exploitation, Gill says, are the outright wage theft, underpayment, and late payment on the one hand, along with the humiliation, intimidation, and abuse on the other.
For example, Arshdeep Singh told TRNN that if workers at his old company refuse to work because of broken equipment, “there will be some sort of reprisal. They’re not going to give you hours for work [and] the company is very rude with the drivers.”
At Baba Dhaba, a Brampton restaurant that NSN is attempting to hold accountable for stealing wages, when a worker said they didn’t have enough money for groceries, the employer suggested that the food provided in the restaurant was enough.
On top of the ever-present fear about being able to afford rent and food, low-wage immigrants and other vulnerable workers face additional coercive threats like the fear of deportation. Because of many immigrant workers’ lack of familiarity with the Canadian legal system, and a lack of organizational infrastructure to wield their collective power, this class of workers is especially exploitable.
“International students are so scared to hell that they don’t want to lift up their heads,” says 27-year-old Gurjeet Singh.
This results in enormous power disparities that manifest in economic and other forms of abuse, with few consequences, allowing employers to knowingly rip off or otherwise harm their workers. The problem is so pervasive that researchers on the subject have argued that attempting to punish offenders after the fact, as the government does in Ontario, won’t work. Employers need to be deterred before they take advantage of their workers, they say. And the existing means for official enforcement of Canadian labor law do not appear to be a very strong deterrent.
Only a small fraction of these intentional abuses ever generate complaints in Ontario from the marginalized workforce that regularly endures them. For those workers who do fight through the proper legal channels and win, though, only 40% of stolen wages are successfully recovered, leaving tens of millions of ill-gotten dollars in the pockets of employers. And noncompliant bosses are almost never prosecuted.
“Why are they setting up labor courts when they are not able to take any of the actions against the [employers?]” asks Arshdeep Singh.
This isn’t just about Toronto, either. Wage theft is a rampant global scourge. In the United States, the pro-labor think tank Economic Policy Institute estimated that just one form of wage theft in the 10 most populous states has resulted in $8 billion illegally taken by bosses annually. And it’s in part because of the paltry institutional mechanisms for holding wage thieves accountable and providing redress for workers that NSN and its members have taken it upon themselves to get back what’s been stolen from them.
One of the first modern worker centers in North America, the Chinese Staff and Worker Association in Manhattan’s Chinatown, formed in the late 1970s out of similar circumstances. As the CSWA website notes, the workers’ center “was originally founded in 1979 in NYC’s Chinatown by a group of Chinese restaurant workers, who felt they needed an organization that would go beyond the limitations of traditional union organizing.”
To achieve their goals, NSN is also going beyond the limitations of traditional union organizing. Dhunna and others say they hope that their tactics will spread to other communities, as well. “We would like for our work to be replicated, to share what we’ve learned and to support other struggles,” she says. And the very strategies that NSN itself has adopted in Toronto were inspired by the creative and militant actions taken by fellow workers thousands of miles away.
To understand how NSN got underway, and how it has made so much progress so rapidly, we need to turn our eyes to India.
Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party, the Indian government passed three laws in September 2020 to liberalize the agricultural sector, legalize hoarding, and remove price supports for small farmers. In response, farmers from the states of Punjab and Haryana in particular converged on the capital to express their opposition to the reforms.
Upon arriving at the outskirts of New Delhi, the farmers eschewed an offer by the local government to occupy, with amenities provided, Jantar Mantar, a contained government-sanctioned protest space within the city where they would have been safely ignored, as protesting farmers had been earlier that year prior to the passage of the three farm laws.
Instead, they took a more disruptive approach by deciding to peacefully occupy highways around New Delhi and refusing to budge, thus interfering with the daily flow of capital. For more than a year. Their protest drew in historic numbers of participants from around the country.
What does this have to do with truckers and restaurant workers in Brampton?
When the farmers in India disrupted business as usual in New Delhi, diasporic Punjabi and Sikh groups across the world were moved to action. From the beginning, thousands rallied in New York, London, and Sydney in solidarity with Indian farmers.
“There was a spontaneous self-driven desire to engage in various forms of solidarity,” Gill recalled, “from… lobbying politicians to massive public protests and an explosion of online poetry, songs, and social media posts.”
But for all those who participated, life did not simply return to normal after the historic farmer protests, which eventually succeeded in pressuring Modi and the government to reverse course on the destructive reforms (although tensions continue to mount as the government has yet to follow through on its promises). “The key point is that people who are engaged in this kind of sustained solidarity work are not going to be the same people afterwards. They will invariably look around the societies in which they live and begin to question other forms of hierarchy and exploitation,” Gill argues.
Moreover, he adds, the international solidarity actions with the farmers in India were “grounded in a community and a concrete struggle back in North India, and people’s investment and ties were forged through kinship and language and religion.”
Marginalized Punjabi immigrants in Toronto and elsewhere in the diaspora found a common discourse of protest and resistance rooted in their culture—and the mass worker struggle—back home. Most of all, there was an appreciation for the decision that the farmers outside Delhi had made to refuse to follow the logic of state-sanctioned protest and to instead blockade the highways for more than a year.
THE LOCAL IS INTERNATIONAL
All of this played out in the formation of NSN, according to Simran Dhunna, a member of the group.
Several NSN members, she told TRNN, “were involved with planning and attending solidarity protests during the time of the [farmer protests], and that was a very politicizing moment for communities in the diaspora.” That process, as Gill noted previously, changed people. According to Dhunna, the solidarity actions organized around in the Toronto area catalyzed a growth in “political consciousness” that has carried over to local struggles and charged efforts to protect exploited and forgotten workers in the Toronto area.
And these workers, as NSN members see every day, are in desperate need of solidarity. “We were noticing a rise in suicides of international students from Punjab,” Dhunna told TRNN. “Every week or two there would be a GoFundMe [set up for] the families back home.” With tragic and distressing frequency, student workers facing economic and/or psychological crises related to their migration status within the country would see no other way out.
Devender Singh describes how the rampant wage theft experienced by international students in Canada directly impacts not just the students, but farming families in Punjab and Haryana as well. “Parents take out a loan expecting their son in Canada to send money to pay for the loan; [meanwhile, the] son sits in Canada working day and night thinking his employer will pay him so that he can send money home,” he told TRNN. If that money never comes, or it’s only a fraction of what was rightfully earned and expected, workers are left in a nightmare scenario.
When Punjabi international student Lovepreet Singh committed suicide in April 2021 in the greater Toronto area, a group of community members who had been demonstrating in solidarity with the Indian farmer protest, including Dhunna, came together to organize a kirtan (devotional event) and community discussion for him, for other international students, as well as for those farmers in India who had died during the protests.
Lovepreet Singh came from a farming family in Punjab; the family had sold their land and taken out loans to send him to Canada.
During the community discussion about the tragic frequency of such suicides, Dhunna told TRNN, the “root causes [were] named—exploitation [and] wage theft coming up particularly.” Those who attended the kirtan began to hold regular organizing meetings; out of those initial meetings, by June 2021, NSN was born.
And when, in November 2021, the farmers in India won the biggest domestic policy victory to date over Modi during his tenure as prime minister, Punjabi immigrant-workers in the Toronto area saw it as both a mandate to fight harder against exploitation in their communities and a template for how to win. “They pushed him basically to the ground [and] they [did] it peacefully… we want to do it peacefully, too; this is our right,” Gurjeet Singh told TRNN. “If they can do it, we can do it.”
And they’re doing it with the music, the style, the shared political history and language, the use of strategic disruption, and the cultural idioms of the kisan morcha (farmers’ front).
Before concluding, the July 9 Brampton protest that made waves outside Sukh Auto hit a final stop: demonstrators marched right up to the pavement in front of the house of Mahabir Bhatth, the owner of Baba Dhaba. According to NSN, Bhatth had underpaid three workers over the course of just a few months by a total of about $10,000 CAD, all while working them to the bone.
Bhatth’s home is in a leafier, less industrial section of Brampton. There, NSN members and volunteers passed out flyers to the chor boss’s neighbors explaining what he had done wrong. They chanted. They spoke out. They chalked up the road in front of Bhatt’s house, signing it “NSN.”
A young white man who had grown up in the area and was visiting his parents drove up to film the demonstration. “This is wild. More people should do this,” he said. “I’m a union guy.”
With the daylight fading, one NSN member announced into the microphone that the event would conclude with a langar, or Sikh community meal. It was “the duty [of organizers] to provide, regardless of social differences [like caste or class, and the] duty of attendees to humbly accept” the meal. He then wished “Eid Mubarak” to the Muslims present in the crowd.
As darkness crept across the sleepy Toronto suburb, channeling the militant fervor of, and kinship with, their fellow workers across the globe, the crowd began marching to a local field for pizza, pakoras, soda, and tea, chanting “Inquilab Zindabad” (“Long Live the Revolution”) along the way.