Immigrant Workers in Montreal: The Rise of The New Precariat

Capitalist globalization has wrecked the lives of the overwhelming majority of the Earth’s population. Neo-liberal policies over the past 30 years have only accelerated this misery, leading to the crisis in 2008. On a global scale, neo-liberal policies and trade agreements have led to the creation of export processing zones in the global south and entrenched privatization and the destruction of labour laws have seen manufacturing jobs shift from the global north to the global south. This shift in the name of seeking greater profits is ruining domestic economies and forcing millions to migrate to the global north in search of a better future.

Yet Capital has been able to expand thanks to this forced situation migration by then building upon a model of global precarity and outsourcing by insourcing and creating a massive precarious workforce based on expendable cheap migrant and immigrant labour inside the global north in cities such as Montreal. Montreal, where North America’s 3rd largest textile industry once existed, saw the collapse of almost 100,000 jobs since the signing of NAFTA in 1994, many of which were low wage jobs occupied mainly by immigrant workers. These companies have since moved their operations to places like Bangladesh where over 1,000 workers died recently over the course of a single year, many of whom were working for subcontractors of North American corporations who create the very work conditions that are forcing people to migrate.

Yet at the same time for the few, the concentration of wealth among the rich has become unprecedented. Canada also (quietly) has one of the largest concentrations of billionaires on the planet, with 64. This level of wealth concentration– brought on by the neoliberalism of the last three decades– has led to unprecedented poverty, misery, and precarity.

In Montreal, the interests of the elite have been well served by globalization and migration. Take, for example, some of Quebec’s wealthiest men: Dollarama’s Larry Rossy, with a total wealth of $1.48 billion; Alain Bouchard of Couche Tard, sitting on a wealth of $1.07 billion; and shoe store king Aldo Bensadoun, with $1.4 billion dollars. All of them have one thing in common: the exploitation of low wage workers and immigrant workers is at the core of their wealth. These companies have put forth immense resources to ensure a weak, low wage, precarious workforce, to create the perfect neo-liberal model precarious worker. This precarious workforce is created, in this case, by using temporary placement agencies to ensure workers cannot organize or struggle for decent work conditions because they can be hired or fired at any given moment. These methods ensure, for example, the wealth of Larry Rossy and the growth of Dollarama with its four Montreal distribution centres that hire thousands of workers, almost all of them immigrants, and all of them temp agency workers. Meaning they wake up every day not knowing whether they will have work.

In their last annual report the two greatest threats to the wealth of Larry Rossy and the profitability of Dollarama were simply put “any raise in the minimum wage and second the unionization of its workforce.” This means the use of the precarious labour of immigrant workers weakens the ability of workers to organize and has created work environments that are almost reminiscent of conditions 100 years ago. As one worker had described the way in which the agency has exploited workers “Certainly one could compare it to slavery, and I’ve been able to understand in my time here that just by an individual’s skin colour, when I go to the placement agency, there’s one kind of work for those who are black and there’s another for those who are white,”

Dollarama is not alone. Go down the list and you’ll find Aldo Bensadoun, another bona fide billionaire who bases his expansion through a public subsidy of $50 million dollars from Pauline Marois. Although most people would think it unlikely to find a despot of exploitation here in Montreal, here this man, profiting from the same debasing labour conditions.

The restructuring of cities like Montréal from manufacturing based economies to service based economies relies on immigrant workers to maintain its functioning. From what we eat to where we eat, to who drives our taxis, cleans the homes of the rich, takes care of the elderly, and maintains the hotels, all of it comes from the labour of immigrants with status, temporary foreign workers, and those without work permits or status. In Quebec 90% of all workers in the service sector are paid minimum wage which is drastically becoming a poverty wage.

The Quebec minimum wage as it now stands is $10.15, and will only be raised to $10.35, a wage increase of a whopping 20 cents. Meanwhile everything from Hydro to food prices continues to outpace the minimum wage. According to research, the minimum wage should be over $13 an hour. So for many workers they remain under the poverty line or are being forced to work well above 40 hours a week. Once again, with the capitalist tightening of the belts, low wage workers, mainly immigrants in the service sector, are forced to take on harsh working conditions.

Yet many of those who do keep our cities running and who are at the core of the food industry, from the fields to the slaughter houses to the factories to the restaurants, are without status. You can go to any metro in the morning and see immigrants without status lining up to get on busses run by agencies to work almost 12 hours a day to pick the tomatoes we eat or prepare the meat people consume, all the while forced to live in draconian conditions, paid anywhere from $7 to $9 an hour below the minimum wage. Having none of the basic rights that citizens have, such as education, healthcare, and employment insurance, the everyday fear of deportation has become the backbone of creating this precarious workforce.

In Canada today there are an estimated 250,000-400,000 undocumented workers, mainly working for cash below minimum wage in construction and hospitality through forms of day labour and temporary placement agencies. Another measure of permanent temporariness is the 300,000 Temporary Foreign Workers now in Canada, a number that has exploded since 2008. So much so that 1/3 of all jobs created from 2007 to 2011 were through the Temporary Foreign Worker program.

It is clear that the struggle around immigrant workers, as anti-capitalists, cannot be seen alone as just a question of migrant justice, but has to be central to any understanding of class and how with the changing nature of class in the 21st century the focus of exploitation is no longer the unionized white worker, but rather a working class that is largely precarious and immigrant based. For us to struggle amongst workers is to stand side by side with migrants fighting for status or access to basic services. To challenge precarity and to stand side by side with immigrant workers who are challenging not just their own exploitation but are at the frontlines of the struggle against Quebec’s major capitalists.

An injury to one is an injury to all