For over two hundred years Asian newcomers to Canada have enriched this country with their culture, traditions, talents and community building. They have come to Canada from East Asia, Southern Asia, Western and Southeast Asia, and have contributed to Canada’s diversity and prosperity. Throughout May, the members of this vibrant community celebrate Asian Heritage Month as a time to reflect on their past, and their future, in their homeland called Canada.
The past has not been easy. In the 1880s, a “head tax” imposed by the federal government required payment of $500 from each person of Chinese origin entering Canada, typically to work on railway construction. The tax was the equivalent of two years’ wages at some of the most dangerous, grueling, and unmonitored job sites in Canada, and remained in place until 1923. The early 20th century also saw the exploitation of South Asian agricultural workers, and four decades later the internment of Japanese Canadians during wartime simply because of their ethnic heritage.
That was then, but shamefully the exploitation of new workers in Canada — many who are Asian — continues. The head tax is applied by unscrupulous job brokers who act as a link to the Harper government’s Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program which fails to provide basic employer oversight or human rights enforcement. Over the past year, for example, scores of workers in Canada from Thailand were interned and then deported, after their TFW employers let them go, which forced them into the underground economy — or back to the same job, but under the table.
But for UFCW Canada TFW members at a number of locations in Alberta and Manitoba, the story is different. Their collective agreement provides a pathway to permanent status, along with the other workplace and labour rights protections.
Diversity represents one of our greatest strengths as a union and as a country. Asian Heritage Month is not just a time to honour our brothers and sisters of Asian heritage, but also a time to reflect that their battle, and our alliance, for social justice and inclusion continues in this century as it did in the last.
Vol. X No. 20 • May 25, 2010