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Most wealthy nations in the west have turned to migrant workers to keep a variety of industries afloat. But while the cheap labor of immigrants is welcomed, the migrants themselves are not. Canada is no exception. From the agricultural industry to the service sector, migrants can be found working under dangerous conditions for less than the minimum wage. And in many cases, unions simply aren’t doing their part to organize this vital section of the workforce. Elizabeth Ha joins The Real News to discuss the plight of migrant workers in Canada and why the labor movement must embrace them for its own survival.

Elizabeth Ha is the Equity Vice President of the Ontario Federation of Labour. She is also a member of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

Studio Production: Jesse Freeston
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Elizabeth Ha:

My name’s Elizabeth Ha. I guess my most important role is I’m a mother to two girls. I am from Windsor, Ontario. The work that I do in labour would be, I am part of Ontario Public Service Employees Union. We’re like a provincial government union. My activism is in not just labour, but also the community. I’m currently the vice president at the OFL, which is the Ontario Federation of Labour, representing workers of color, and then also ACLA and CBTU. I am a member of both of those, which is Asian Canadian Labour Alliance and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Well, Elizabeth, thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us at The Real News. I really, really appreciate it. We are, of course, sitting here at the Action Network tent at the 30th Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress. We’ve been talking to as many folks as we can over the past two days, learning as much as we can about the state of the labour movement here in Canada, what our fellow workers across industries are going through, and how folks are fighting for the working class.

I really wanted to sit down and chat with you because of, I mean, all the incredible work that you do really, but especially in terms of your work fighting for workers of color and fighting for migrant workers in Canada. I think that this is something that really I have a personal connection to. It’s something that we try to cover extensively at The Real News Network as well, because for as exciting as the energy we’re seeing in the organized labour movement is and as exciting as it is to see more established unions nominally support the energy of young workers at Starbucks and Amazon and service industry workers across the board.

That’s all very exciting. But there’s still so many workers who are left out of the movement or who are written out of the movement itself, because like migrant farm workers, for example, in the United States, farm workers were deliberately written out of the National Labor Relations Act for very racist reasons and are very underrepresented in the movement as a result of it. And that doesn’t mean that we forget about them.

That means that we have to fight that much harder to support them as they are dealing with hyper exploitation, rampant discrimination and harassment, wage theft, so on and so forth. I wanted to ask if you could just say a little more about your organizing and advocacy work as it pertains to workers of color and migrant workers in Canada.

Elizabeth Ha:

When you talk about migrant workers in the States, it’s very, very similar to migrant workers in Canada. I know this because I’ve talked to workers in the States. When you hear their stories, a lot of it happens here in Canada. Being from Windsor, we’re about 30 minutes, 40 minutes from Leamington, and we have one of the highest population of migrant workers in Ontario. I’ve been doing this work for years, and I think because of the pandemic in the last couple years, it just really put a spotlight on what’s happening and people in the community are starting to see it.

Growing up in Windsor, you go to Leamington for field trips and stuff and you would see migrant workers, but I don’t think people really knew their working conditions or their living conditions. When COVID happened, initially when the borders closed, they weren’t allowed into Canada. They couldn’t find anyone to do this work. Canadians don’t want to do this work. I think most people know the health and safety risk and the lack of everything. Nobody wants to do this hard labour.

Maximillian Alvarez:

You get paid like shit. You got no bathrooms. You’re getting harassed by supervisors.

Elizabeth Ha:

The other thing is I think the employer wants migrant workers because they are able to do whatever they want, pay lower wages, not pay them. They’re working overtime, but not getting paid overtime. They are doing work that they’re not supposed to do, like demeaning personal errands for their employer. On and on. When they were coming in, the employer went to the government, was able to lobby the government. If you have money basically, the government listens and they opened the borders, then they were deemed essential. They came in. The problem was when you look at essential workers, healthcare workers were essential workers, there’s a number of them.

We called them here. We put signs on our lawns and all this stuff. But when the migrant workers came in, they were essential, but they didn’t get the same welcome. They didn’t get the same protections as other essential workers got. We started to hear about workers getting sick in the workplaces. What happened was, in Canada, if certain workplace worker got sick, they got COVID, I don’t know the numbers, but the health unit would come in and basically close the business. We knew there were hundreds of workers getting sick on these farms, and we had to go and make sure someone checked on them.

We were able to get a lot of information from the workers because we’ve done so much work, we have a history and there’s a trust. They were able to share pictures of what they got to eat. They told us how they didn’t get PPE. Without them even telling you, you know in certain workplaces you cannot social distance. You’re literally working beside another person. Their housing, definitely no social distancing. You’re sleeping in bunk beds with another worker or two bunk beds with… There’s four workers in a small room with shared bathrooms and shared kitchens and things like that. And then on top of all that, they’re restricted.

They can’t leave the property anymore because the employer were not letting them leave the property to take groceries or anything. Their reason was to protect the community from in case somebody had COVID. Meanwhile, they come in knowing they didn’t have COVID. These employers were given money to quarantine their workers. We know a lot of them were not quarantined, and there was no accountability. No one asked the employer, “Can you show us a receipt that this worker was quarantined?” No, they just pocketed this money. The workers were maybe quarantined for a day, two days a week, and then they were working.

But with that said, they still did not have COVID. The reason people were getting sick was some of these farms were bringing in people from the community do the work. They were actually bringing COVID into these workplaces, and the migrant workers were getting blamed for bringing COVID into the country. I remember going to a store and purchasing all this stuff and the cash register lady, whatever, she said, “Oh, you’re buying all this stuff. Are you stocking up?” I’m like, “No, I’m bringing them to Leamington.” This guy behind me, and I had my daughter, which bothered me, and he said, “Why are you bringing this stuff to those people? They’re bringing all these diseases in, brought in COVID.”

This is what’s happening with migrant workers. The good thing is people started to see how these workers were being treated. Even though I’m telling you the story of this one person, there was a lot of people that brought in PPE and brought in donations of food. Businesses were cooking culturally appropriate food so that we can bring it down to Leamington. We had boxes and boxes of fresh produce coming in from Toronto that we would try to get to these farms, to the workers. We had grandmothers making masks for them. It really showed people still cared and they were able to get up and take care of each other.

These workers, it’s not like this is their first time. Some of the workers have been coming for 10, 20, 30 years, even generations, and they’re still treated like this.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Right. We’re talking in this corner of the country primarily agricultural workers?

Elizabeth Ha:

Yes, like farm workers. Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:

I just wanted to clarify that, because in the States and I know in Canada too, I mean, there are definitely pockets across the labour market where employers exploit migrant labour and even migrant child labour as we’ve been hearing about in the United States. We’re talking meat packing plants. We’re talking construction sites, but we’re also talking about farming operations across the country.

What you were saying is that when COVID hit and farm workers were deemed essential along with other classes of workers, but no one wanted to do those jobs, and so the farmers lobbied the government to essentially ease migration restrictions so that migrant farm workers could come in. The farmers would get paid for having those essential migrant farm workers come in, and they would get paid to quarantine them, but they wouldn’t actually do that.

They would just pocket the money and kick the workers out into the fields, then they would pen the workers in, not let them leave, and occasionally bring in workers from around town who would get them sick, and then they would be stuck there in a locked pen. Do I have that right?

Elizabeth Ha:

Yep. That’s exactly what was happening.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Cool, cool. That’s great. Jesus, man. I mean, it’s so dark and I’m so grateful to you and to others who are doing everything you can to fight for and fight alongside these workers who, as we said, are so often, too often left by the wayside. I wanted to ask about that for a second. I would say in the United States, there are some exceptions. There are established unions that have gone to the mat for the most marginalized and exploited of workers. You’re seeing positive developments like Laborers Local 79, the construction workers union in New York City.

Instead of doing what people typically think of construction workers in New York City doing, which is blaming undocumented workers and non-union workers as the enemy who are undercutting our jobs and our wages, they’re reaching out to these workers, largely migrant and undocumented workers in the city or returning citizens coming home from prison, who are ripe for hyper exploitation and have to work for the most union busting, exploitative, corner cutting demolition and construction companies in the city.

The unions reaching out to these workers and fighting for them, creating things like an Excluded Workers Fund because they weren’t eligible for federal COVID or state COVID benefits. That’s really positive to see, but it’s still, in my assessment, the exception that proves the rule. I wanted to ask where the plight of migrant farm workers specifically in your experience, where that fits into the broader labour movement, if at all, in Canada?

Elizabeth Ha:

The work that I do, it is community work. I was lucky enough where we were able to pass resolution at my union to say, okay, let’s start doing some work with organizations like Justia. The resolution was about when we do training or reaching out to the community, sometimes we need the resources and funds to do this work. Making unions recognize that you have that potential, and these are workers too. We were able to get that convention floor to pass a resolution. That allowed me, who moved the resolution, to be able to do some more of that work. I’m hoping that it was moved because they want to help workers.

But I think at the same time, this is just a part of me that thinks, it’s about also not advertising, but a lot of unions do things for the wrong reasons. They want that stamp, like their logo on stuff, or they want recognition for things. As I did this work, I sometimes will mention my union, but I wasn’t forced to, so I just continued doing it. I do think more unions need to look at not just their own members. When you look at unions historically, they don’t just advocate for your membership, your dues paying membership. Historically, they fought for workers in general. And that’s what our unions, all unions everywhere should be doing is they need to see, why do we have a problem?

Why is there this low percentage of our population not part of a union? How are people viewing unions? As a racialized woman, I think that our communities have… We don’t trust unions because they’ve historically discriminated, or they’ve used our communities for certain things. If you continue to do that, why would we want to participate in a union when even after you join, only a certain group of people get to benefit from some of those things? I think the labour movement needs to wake up. I think this is the time. I believe it’s the time. I mean, I’ve never heard the words equity, diversity, inclusiveness in spaces like this as much as I’ve heard it in the last two years.

But with that being said, I’m just hearing it, right? I need to see it. As a human rights activist, you need to show me. I can’t continue making you look good because I’m part of a community that has been there for me and that’s where my fight is. But I do see this as a moment where there is so much opportunity for unions to do the real work for them to survive really in the long run. Because right now you can have a rally to fight for whatever the issue is now. But after a month later when you’re done fighting, the bigger issue is still out there. There is still not enough housing for people. The price of food has gone up.

People cannot afford groceries anymore. Where I live, the cost of rent. There’s so much homelessness. The unemployment rate in my area has gone up. I mean, everything. I feel like workers are at a point where they’re angry. They see what’s happening. I think that’s where unions need to tap into it and say, “Listen, what can we do to help and not take over what you’re already doing? Here’s a space for you to speak. Tell us your experience. What is it that we need to do?” Because when you talk about affordable housing or whatever, labour will say, “Okay, this is what we need to do,” but we’re not the one struggling.

If you’re part of a union, you have a collective agreement. You make pretty good money, and you have a union that protects you. You probably have benefits, pension, all this stuff, and you’re fighting for people that can barely pay rent or you’re trying to increase wages. Meanwhile, you’re getting paid $25. We need to start moving aside and letting the people who are living these experiences be the voice.

Maximillian Alvarez:

Just on that note, to really underline the stakes, first and foremost, they’re the obvious human stakes, which you laid out. People not being able to sleep under a roof. People not being able to feed themselves or their children. People not being able to access the healthcare that they desperately need. People who can be fired from their job like that just for who they are, what they wear. No just cause whatsoever. We have so far to go in fighting these injustices and fighting them for all working people, like you said, not just those who are fortunate enough to have a collective bargaining agreement. There are those basic first principle human stakes of we need to do this because it’s what’s right.

Then there’s the secondary stakes, like you said, it’s like we need to do this, otherwise the labour movement will die. We’ve been in decline for decades. For our own salvation, we need to be thinking about how we can expand our movement and reach as many workers as we possibly can and think in that mode. And then on the third order that I was thinking of as you were talking is we’re not the only ones making a play to appeal to working class people who are feeling that pain right now. There is a rising increasingly fascistic right wing that is speaking to this pain and harnessing it for its own political agenda.

I think the question is, as the great labour organizer Aminah Sheikh put it in a recent piece that she published, she’s like, how are labour in the left rising to meet this discontent, this frustration and anger and pain with the cost of living crisis, with the eroding social safety net, with increased climate catastrophe and endless war? All of this stuff is happening and working people are feeling it. What are labour in the left doing to meet that, meet people where they are, speak to that pain and harness that into something, a movement that can fight for better?

Because at the same time, the right is making those appeals and tapping into that anger and doing what they always do, which is directing it back towards migrants, queer people, trans people, just carving out certain privileged sectors of the real true working class. Everyone else is trying to steal something from you. I guess, I meant to ask in that regard, when we’re talking about the migrant farm workers in your area, are these primarily workers coming from Latin America and the Caribbean?

Elizabeth Ha:


Maximillian Alvarez:

Okay. I don’t know. I assume that like in the United States, they get sucked into that reactionary fervor and painted as the ones who are stealing our jobs and the ones that need to be targeted for elimination. Anyway, you’ve said so much that’s just making me really, really think about how important it is to act now because this shit isn’t going away and the stakes are only going to continue to increase dramatically.

I guess, I just wanted to ask, in that vein, what would it look like or what should it look like for the labour movement, but also for all of us to make that commitment to fighting for the working class writ large, not just organized labour?

Elizabeth Ha:

That’s a hard question. I think that the key piece is to make people realize, it’s not just about themselves and to really think about who are you doing this for in this moment. Because as activists, we became activists because we wanted to be the voice of someone that didn’t have a voice, or we’re fighting for the rights of our workers. But when you’re thinking about that, I think about the future generation. Even as an activist before I had kids, it’s very different now that I have kids. Because as I go to a rally, it’s like, I don’t want my kids to go to this rally. I don’t want them fighting for this. It makes me think of everything that I have and all the people that came before me so that I can have those things.

I think people need to understand, sometimes people think activism might be a bad word. I think if you want to do the right thing and be that voice, to me you’re an activist and you’re doing the right thing. I think labour needs to be like… I don’t know. I can’t see this as being a quick fix, right? Because the structure of the movement needs to be reinvented. I don’t want to say just smash it down and build it. But in a way, you kind of have to really look at the structure of your union and the people that are making these decisions. Are you including voices? Every union has equity groups like workers of color, people with disability, all these different equity.

You’re giving them a space and sometimes a voice, but are you really listening? Are you really taking what they’re saying and saying, “How do we fix this? How do we open this door? What do we need to do?” I think that’s the problem is we’re doing things because we have to. We have a committee because we have to. But then are you going to do something? I mean, I got so many things going through my head to answer this question, but I don’t really have one solution, I guess, because it’s so hard. I don’t know.

I think the key thing for me right now doing this work is trying to get unions, like the labour movement, to see how important it is for them to connect with the community, not just workers in their unions, all workers as a whole. They definitely have the resources to do this. This is the moment to do it because I think people are ready. I think workers are ready to say, “Enough is enough, and we’re not going to take this anymore.” People can’t survive.

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Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
Follow: @maximillian_alv