by Alessandro Drago
Montreal | “For temporary foreign workers there are a lot of injustices,” Noé Arteaga told a room of supporters and journalists. “We want justice, not just for me… but for everyone”.
Arteaga had organized a press conference at the Immigrant Workers Centre on December 17 to draw attention to his struggle for justice. Five years ago, he was unjustly fired after organizing a work stoppage to protest the maltreatment of a fellow employee. Arteaga is in the process of filing a complaint against his former employer.
Arteaga first came to Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. He was hired to work for an agricultural company in Shawinigan, Quebec.
One day, a co-worker of Arteaga’s was tasked with using pesticides despite never having being trained on the use of pesticides. That day the worker was exposed to the pesticides and required medical attention. However, the employer refused to take him to the hospital. The employer claimed that the worker’s symptoms were pre-existing. To make things worse, the employer forced the sick employee to keep working.
The employer came up with excuses as to why they would not take him to the hospital. After a few weeks of preventing the worker from seeking medical attention, Arteaga and his fellow co-workers decided on a work stoppage to force the employer to take the sick worker to the hospital.
For his role in this work stoppage, Arteaga was fired and then deported to Guatemala.
But Arteaga did not accept this injustice and he returned to Canada shortly after his deportation to file a complaint against his employer. His complaint is currently in its fifth year. He is seeking several weeks of severance pay (which he is owed by the employer) and payment for the airplane ticket (which the employer is contractually obliged to pay).
Joining Arteaga at the press conference were 3 former TFWs who spoke about their experiences in Canada. Arteaga was also joined by groups such as Mexicans United for Regularization, Solidarity Across Borders, PINAY (Filipino Women’s Organization in Quebec) and several others who were there to show solidarity and support for Arteaga. Kathy Pescador of PINAY stated that the solidarity of multiple groups for Arteaga is beneficial as “the more we unite… the stronger our voice.”
Some of the other TFWs spoke of their experiences and work conditions which included working long hours, sometimes without overtime pay, being insulted by their managers, being threatened with deportation and general exploitation as many workers have to pay expenses that in reality the employer must cover. Racism is another hardship that TFWs face. For instance, Arteaga and his coworkers were forbidden to speak Spanish while working.
“Most workers remain in silence because of their vulnerability” explained Carmelo Monge of Mexicans for Regularization, who was referencing Arteaga’s strength for pursuing his complaint.
Mohammed Ali Ben Dellej, a former TFW himself and a member of the Temporary Foreign Workers Association, spoke about how most such workers do not have enough courage or are too scared to speak out against their bosses out of fear of punishment or losing their jobs.
The number of TFWs in Canada has increased to nearly 300,000 and the conditions they face have not improved. As Mostafa Henaway explained, “Noé’s case… sort of exemplifies a situation that no longer are these people are on the fringe… but that they have become the unfortunate norm.”
The discrimination faced by TFW is codified in Canadian law. Henaway further expressed, “If we want justice for Noé… then there has to be fundamental changes to the labour and immigration policy of Canada.”
As International Migrants’ Day was celebrated December 18th, it serves as a reminder of the continuing struggle and hardships faced by temporary foreign workers all over the world. Their increased vulnerability often leads to maltreatment and it is also difficult for them to seek justice afterwards.
Arteaga’s case is important as an example to all temporary foreign workers that there are ways to fight back against injustice.