Disposable Humanity: Industry and Immigration

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There exists a duality in the attitudes of some of the families of refugees in Canada that cuts between gratitude and uneasiness. I call it uneasiness because I’m not sure how else to describe it. The gratitude comes from a host country granting a refugee sanctuary during a time when their lives are in peril. Most refugees I have talked to, including my grandparents, were beyond thankful for the sanctuary granted to them by Canada. But there’s also that other thing that hovers over them like a shadow cast by a creature born of greed and maleficence. The best way I can think to describe it is an act that is born of good intentions but under the surface, beneath the valid and just reasons we grant people sanctuary, there is a secondary benefit that comes with having displaced and desperate people willing to work in deplorable conditions for a paltry salary. It lets politicians seem outwardly just and forward-thinking while accepting large campaign donations from companies who profit from the exploitation of immigrant and refugee labor. Fortunes have been built on the backs of people like my grandparents, and they will continue to be built on their exploitation because we either refuse to or don’t know how to talk about it. Exploitation is not something that happens to every immigrant or refugee, but there are traps that suck people in and work them to death. A movie quote was the inspiration for this post, and I feel it captures the sentiment:

Every civilization is built on the back of a disposable workforce.

Niander Wallace Blade Runner 2049

Canada is no different. This statement is a reality we gloss over in favor of quaint little lies we tell ourselves – that we repeat amongst each other and to outsiders to make us look righteous and just. But under the surface, there exists an ugliness that weaves its way through certain Canadian corporate structures that takes the vulnerable and grinds them down for profit and industry. The very arteries that powered early Canadian industrialism were built by the labor of Chinese immigrants, many of whom perished in the undertaking of building the trans-Canada railroad. We lament this in schools, and we self-flagellate to prove that we have since learned our lesson, and that things of this nature cannot exist in modern day Canada. This is mere delusion. As each successive group becomes established, they tell their stories, and we are glad to teach them to a new generation of Canadian children while behind their backs we grind the next group of immigrants into the mortar that holds our society together.

So it was with my grandfather. He worked in a Toronto foundry. The workers were not given masks, and they were not allowed to open the windows because the smell of the smoke would bother the office workers as it drifted towards their building close to the foundry. He breathed that toxic particulate for eight hours a day and would come home, face black with ash. Some, like my grandfather, would develop silicosis. Even a perfunctory google search would tell you that one of the complications of silicosis is that the heart has to work harder to oxygenate the blood, and this can lead to a heart attack. But as it was not the silicosis that killed him, but a heart attack, his widow would be denied a Workers Compensation claim. Many of his co-workers were immigrants, and like him, they would not be able to find better employment. His choice was to work in a place like that or the starvation of his family. And so, he worked, and he died.

This took place during a time when the iron curtain had descended over Europe. When the Berlin wall still stood. When Soviet, Yugoslav, and Eastern bloc communism drove refugees from their homes and onto the distant shores of the United States and Canada. My grandmother and grandfather were refugees. My grandfather always told my mother that he was thankful to Canada for granting him sanctuary. If it wasn’t for Canada, he and my grandmother would have perished. The act was one of kindness, and it makes me proud as a Canadian to think of our country as a protector of the vulnerable. This pride often clashes with what my grandfather experienced working in that foundry, and at the hands of Workmen’s Compensation. Just like those in Niander Wallace’s statement, he was disposable. I’m not certain how to reconcile these two conflicting feelings. It’s something I’ll struggle with my entire life.

For a long time, I thought his death and treatment were an anomaly. One of those sad stories you hear about something falling on a construction worker, or some other unfortunate workplace accident. I thought we treated people better as a country. Then an article was printed in the Toronto Star that sounded similar to what my grandfather experienced.

The star details the explosion of temp agencies, which hire mostly new immigrants and send them to work in places like the big industrial bakery at Fiera Foods. “When I walk into the factory, I see mostly people of colour. Many are new Canadians. Many told me they have taken this job for one reason: to survive.” They collect their paycheck from a payday lender and are given next to no training before they start working around heavy machinery, at a brutal pace and for below poverty level pay. Injuries suffered at the factory count towards the temp agency’s WSIB rating, not the factory’s:

“At the WSIB, the temp agency is considered the worker’s employer. If they are hurt on the job, the agency takes the financial hit, not the place where they were actually injured.

As a result, the compensation system “doesn’t really reflect the safety in the workplace,” says the University of Waterloo’s MacEachen. “It doesn’t hold (companies) responsible properly.”

“Nobody is held responsible. Nobody is held accountable,” adds Chris Buckley of the Ontario Federation of Labour. “They’ve built a successful business on the backs of workers.”

As to what happens when they are actually injured, the story mirrors that of my grandfather:

“(Temp agency workers) can easily be told, following an injury, that ‘you’re not covered by workers’ comp’ or ‘we have no more work for you,’” says Ellen MacEachen, a professor at the University of Waterloo and affiliate of the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health.”

“Claims suppression was identified as an issue across all sectors in a 2013 study for the WSIB. It found that of 100 enforcement files analyzed, 48 contained indications of employers directly trying to block or dissuade workers from filing an injury claim.”

Did my grandfather get sucked into one of these predatory employers? How long have factories like this been exploiting new Canadians? The article indicates a temp worker was killed in the Fiera factory when a machine he was cleaning was turned on while he was still inside back in 1999. Is it that much of a stretch to assume that this has been going on for thirty years? Or did he fall into a different trap? At any rate, it seems to be a perverse tradition we have here. We haven’t changed. We haven’t learned, and we haven’t gotten better. Just like we did with the Ukrainians whom we sent without proper shelter or clothing to populate the prairies in -40°C winter, we are now using new immigrants to run our factories and transport our goods without proper training or safety equipment. Welcome to Canada, be sure to pay your tithe in blood.

Header photo by Robin Sommer

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