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Manuel Sala­man­ca Car­dona is an activist with the Immi­grant Work­ers Cen­tre (IWC), which orga­nizes with immi­grant and migrant work­ers in a wide range of con­texts in Mon­tréal. Scott Neigh inter­views him specif­i­cal­ly about the strug­gles of work­ers employed by temp agen­cies, and about the work of the IWC-affil­i­at­ed Tem­po­rary Agency Work­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, which fights for improved con­di­tions and labour rights for temp agency workers.

Found­ed in 2000, the IWC engages in pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion, work­place and com­mu­ni­ty mobi­liza­tion, pol­i­cy advo­ca­cy, indi­vid­ual sup­port, and a range of oth­er move­ment-build­ing work. In its ear­ly years, a sort of work­ing-group emerged with­in the cen­tre focused specif­i­cal­ly on the expe­ri­ences, needs, and strug­gles of those work­ers employed by temp agen­cies. A temp agency is a firm that sub­con­tracts work­ers to oth­er enter­pris­es. As the name sug­gests, this osten­si­bly hap­pens on a tem­po­rary basis, though in many sec­tors temps have become a per­ma­nent part of the work­force and of cor­po­rate busi­ness mod­els. Accord­ing to today’s guest, sec­tors that make heavy use of temp agen­cies in Mon­tréal include ware­hous­es, health care, and food production.

Along with all of the oth­er issues faced by low-wage, pre­car­i­ous work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly when inter­sect­ing with expe­ri­ences of racism and with Canada’s oppres­sive immi­gra­tion sys­tem, the main chal­lenge with temp agen­cies is this tri­an­gu­lar rela­tion­ship, estab­lished through sub­con­tract­ing,” among the work­er, the temp agency, and the enter­prise where they are placed, accord­ing to Sala­man­ca Car­dona. Until quite recent­ly, employ­ment law in Que­bec (and in most oth­er provinces) lacked clear reg­u­la­tion deal­ing with this sit­u­a­tion. This vague­ness about what the agency was respon­si­ble for and what the enter­prise was respon­si­ble for lead to all kinds of sit­u­a­tions in which it was, quite pre­dictably, the work­er who end­ed up suf­fer­ing – from lack of clar­i­ty about who had to pro­vide safe­ty equip­ment, to a lack of recourse to get wages owed when one or the oth­er par­ty went bank­rupt, to all kinds of oth­er sce­nar­ios. Work­ers with pre­car­i­ous migra­tion sta­tus are par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble in such sit­u­a­tions, because the threat posed by loss of sta­tus and depor­ta­tion can make it more dif­fi­cult for work­ers to demand their rights.

Sala­man­ca Car­dona said, The big enter­pris­es are prof­it­ing from that, and also agen­cies. And it’s like agen­cies are using vul­ner­a­ble labour, based on vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties cre­at­ed by immi­gra­tion poli­cies to cre­ate cheap labour. Because they can­not ask, they can­not fight for their rights.”

In 2011, the work­ing-group of temp work­ers with­in the IWC launched TAWA (in French, the Asso­ci­a­tion des tra­vailleurs et tra­vailleuses tem­po­raire d’agence, or ATTAP). Ini­tial­ly, the new orga­ni­za­tion con­tin­ued with all of the work that was already hap­pen­ing to sup­port temp agency work­ers, mobi­lize around com­mon issues, par­tic­i­pate in larg­er cam­paigns, and gath­er sto­ries and expe­ri­ences of what work­ers were fac­ing. Start­ing in 2014, the asso­ci­a­tion entered dia­logue with the Con­fédéra­tion des syn­di­cats nationaux (CSN), one of the large labour cen­trals in Que­bec, and they devel­oped a strong work­ing rela­tion­ship. Then, in 2016, the asso­ci­a­tion cre­at­ed a list of five key demands for labour law reform – things like man­dat­ing joint respon­si­bil­i­ty between the agency and the enter­prise for health and safe­ty and for ensur­ing work­ers were paid, as well as equal access to the law for work­ers regard­less of migra­tion status.

The com­bi­na­tion of cam­paign­ing by the asso­ci­a­tion and the adop­tion of these demands as part of the broad­er labour movement’s agen­da result­ed in labour law reforms in 2018, some of which were rel­e­vant to temp agency work­ers. Gains includ­ed man­dat­ing shared respon­si­bil­i­ty between the agency and the enter­prise for wages, manda­to­ry gov­ern­ment reg­is­tra­tion of all temp agen­cies, and wage par­i­ty between per­ma­nent and tem­po­rary work­ers doing the same job. Sala­man­ca Car­dona described these as impor­tant gains” and very sig­nif­i­cant,” while still acknowl­edg­ing there is much left to do – There are ways that enter­pris­es and agen­cies can evade the new labour reg­u­la­tions. Also, there are issues that are still not regulated.”

In the lead-up to the pan­dem­ic, TAWA was engag­ing in its reg­u­lar sup­port and move­ment-build­ing work, and was in the process of devel­op­ing plans to test the new reg­u­la­tions and how they were work­ing for temp agency work­ers. But with the onset of COVID, things changed dras­ti­cal­ly. Not only were the con­di­tions for orga­niz­ing sud­den­ly very dif­fer­ent, giv­en pub­lic health restric­tions, but so were the needs of work­ers. For instance, the major con­cen­tra­tion of temp agency work­ers in the ware­house sec­tor was sud­den­ly bear­ing a major part of the risk of the pan­dem­ic, as their labours became essen­tial to allow more priv­i­leged work­ers to safe­ly work from home.

Accord­ing to Sala­man­ca Car­dona, The sit­u­a­tion for immi­grant racial­ized work­ers was hap­pen­ing dif­fer­ent from the mid­dle class white Cana­di­ans that were able to work from home. So that start­ed a sort of new ele­ment to devel­op a cam­paign of pub­lic denun­ci­a­tion, to show that immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties were receiv­ing the biggest neg­a­tive impacts of the effects of the pan­dem­ic in Cana­da. But at the same time, they were keep­ing the econ­o­my work­ing.” He con­tin­ued, The worst of the pan­dem­ic was being lived by immi­grant and migrant work­ers.” Among oth­er things, there was a con­stant need to fight for access to per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and safe­ty mea­sures, with lit­tle sup­port from reg­u­la­tors. In addi­tion, migrant agri­cul­tur­al work­ers faced new lev­els of strug­gle relat­ed to both safe­ty and migra­tion sta­tus, and height­ened employ­ment (and exploita­tion) of temp agency work­ers became an increas­ing ele­ment of efforts to sta­bi­lize an over­bur­dened health care system.

Mov­ing for­ward, temp agency work­ers in IWC and TAWA have a few pri­or­i­ties. This includes con­tin­u­ing to build on the par­tial vic­to­ry of the ear­li­er law reforms, pos­si­bly cam­paign­ing to use a fea­ture of Que­bec labour law that allows one col­lec­tive agree­ment to be decreed as the min­i­mum stan­dard for an entire sec­tor, and efforts to con­sol­i­date orga­niz­ing in fac­to­ries in the rur­al areas sur­round­ing Mon­tréal. There is also a grow­ing cam­paign by women with­in TAWA around the spe­cif­ic vio­lences that they face in the workplace.