Thousands march for undocumented and migrant worker rights

Migrant workers demanding ‘status for all’ at Canada-wide protests
Sophia De Guzman
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Thousands took to the streets across the country this weekend to demand permanent status for all migrants, including agricultural workers, healthcare workers, international students, as well as massage parlour and sex workers.

The march brought together groups and activists to hold Prime Minister Trudeau accountable for his 2021 promise of regularization for all foreign workers.

“We will all fight till each and every person has status. No one should be left behind,” the crowd chanted.

Organized by Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, rallies were held in six Canadian cities to mark the International Day to End Racial Discrimination.

In Toronto, demonstrators marched from Christie Pits to deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland’s office.

Alliance organizer Sarom Rho said Trudeau made the promise in a mandate letter to immigration, refugee and citizenship minister Sean Fraser. In the objectives, the letter commits to “further explore ways of regularizing status for undocumented workers who are contributing to Canadian communities.”

Migrant workers are demanding the government create “an uncapped regularization program without which exploitation will continue,” Rho said.

In the letter, Trudeau commits to addressing the “profound systemic inequities and disparities that remain present in the core fabric of our society.” The letter outlines commitments to continue the expansion of Canada’s immigration program, to bring more refugees in, to reduce application processing times and fees, and to build more pathways for foreign workers to gain permanent status, among other commitments.

Among those at the rally was Jen, a healthcare worker, who doesn’t have access to healthcare due to her lack of status.

As a temporary foreign healthcare worker who arrived in Canada in 2017, Jen fled Uganda as a queer person and came to Canada to seek freedom from persecution. Right now in Uganda, a new anti-gay bill was just passed by Parliament, which is leading to increased violence against LGBTQ people, and likely a new wave of asylum-seekers desperate to escape.

“Once you seek asylum, they promise they will protect you from the country you are running from. Why would I come here to seek full protection when you cannot really protect me? It’s a shame that they don’t fulfill their promises.”

“Once you seek asylum, they promise they will protect you from the country you are running from,” she said. But for the past three years, Jen has been undocumented, meaning she has no authorization to reside or work in Canada. After being denied status, Jen felt betrayed by Canada. “Why would I come here to seek full protection when you cannot really protect me? It’s a shame that they don’t fulfill their promises.”

If granted permanent residence, Jen wants to pursue a degree in nursing.

Temporary foreign workers in Canada have notoriously been exploited for cheap labour in low-wage sectors of the economy. Workers without status often face work in dangerous circumstances, get no benefits, lack access to healthcare and legal support, and suffer from exploitation, fatigue, restless nights, grief of separation from their families, and trauma. The speakers at the protest described their conditions as “inhuman” and demanded fundamental human rights for everyone.

“Undocumented and migrant workers contribute to our society and economy every day. They deserve to have access to legal status. I joined the call for the federal government to create a regularization program for all,” tweeted Ontario NDP MPP for for Parkdale—High Park Bhutila Karpoche, who attended the rally.

A representative from Butterfly, Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network spoke to the crowd.

“Undocumented and migrant workers contribute to our society and economy every day. They deserve to have access to legal status.”

The speaker talked about being terrified of getting sick while working in a busy supermarket, or a massage parlour, or a professional kitchen because he does not have a health card. Even after finding out he had stage four colon cancer, he still did not receive adequate care from healthcare practitioners because of his lack of status.

Souyong Lee, an organizer and support worker for Butterfly, urges Canadians not to fall for the tokenizing narratives around sex work. Sex workers deserve the same status and rights as any other worker. “It’s one thing for politicans to consistently be talking about [sex work] and making empty promises, [but] that is why we are here today to, as a part of the coalition, as a part of the community to confront and hold [them] accountable when they are making promises to thousands of families.”

Other workers’ organizations joined the call. Angela Preocanin, vice president of the Ontario Nurses Association said, “we’re here to support justice for workers because all of our society deserves to have healthcare. We have nurses who don’t have permanent residence and they are working. We want to ensure that all people, all workers, have the same rights.”

With files from Sophia de Guzman

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