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Sim­ran Kaur Dhun­na and Bikram Singh are mem­bers of the Nau­jawan Sup­port Net­work, a group of inter­na­tion­al stu­dents and immi­grant work­ers pri­mar­i­ly based in Bramp­ton, Ontario, who are chal­leng­ing the exploita­tion and mis­treat­ment that their mem­bers face using protest, mutu­al sup­port, and col­lec­tive direct action. Scott Neigh inter­views them about how they direct­ly con­front the employ­ers, land­lords, immi­gra­tion con­sul­tants, and oth­er peo­ple who exploit them, and why that is such an impor­tant part of work­ers build­ing pow­er and win­ning victories.

Bramp­ton is a city of around 650,000 peo­ple locat­ed in Peel Region, part of the sub­urbs with­in the Greater Toron­to Area (GTA) in south­ern Ontario. More than three-quar­ters of the pop­u­la­tion is racial­ized and many res­i­dents are also immi­grants, and there is a par­tic­u­lar­ly large Pun­jabi pop­u­la­tion. Along with sub­stan­tial hos­pi­tal­i­ty and con­struc­tion sec­tors, Bramp­ton is a cen­tral logis­tics hub for south­ern Ontario, and it is home to many truck yards, ware­hous­es, dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­tres, and so on. These busi­ness­es, and there­fore mil­lions of Ontar­i­ans, depend on Brampton’s inter­na­tion­al stu­dents and oth­er racial­ized immi­grant work­ers. Dhun­na said that Bramp­ton, like many of the sub­urbs, has held up the GTA and south­ern Ontario through­out the pan­dem­ic, and well before that.”

It is, sad­ly, noth­ing new for inter­na­tion­al stu­dents and recent immi­grants work­ing in these sec­tors to be fac­ing a wide range of oppres­sive cir­cum­stances, but there were two devel­op­ments in 2021 that inspired Pun­jabi youth to get togeth­er and form the Nau­jawan Sup­port Net­work. One was the mas­sive upris­ing by farm­ers from Pun­jab, Haryana, and oth­er states in India that ulti­mate­ly defeat­ed the oppres­sive farm laws that Naren­dra Modi’s BJP gov­ern­ment was attempt­ing to impose – that was, accord­ing to Dhun­na, a very politi­ciz­ing force” in the com­mu­ni­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly for inter­na­tion­al stu­dents whose par­ents were direct­ly involved in the uprising.

The oth­er devel­op­ment was a shock­ing num­ber of instances of young work­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty dying by sui­cide. A com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing was orga­nized to dis­cuss the issue, to bet­ter under­stand the hope­less­ness that some youth were feel­ing. Dhun­na said, We had a dis­cus­sion about why that’s hap­pen­ing, what are the root caus­es – the main one being exploita­tion. Because if you’re not paid your wages, you can’t pay your rent, you can’t pay your tuition. It’s dif­fi­cult to face par­ents who have tak­en out loans and gone into debt debt to send you here.” So they formed the net­work to con­front the peo­ple who exploit us directly.”

Since its for­ma­tion, wage theft has been one of the most com­mon prob­lems that the Nau­jawan Sup­port Net­work has dealt with. While it is some­thing that hap­pens to low-wage work­ers in lots of dif­fer­ent con­texts, Canada’s immi­gra­tion sys­tem makes inter­na­tion­al stu­dents and oth­er recent immi­grants par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to this kind of exploitation.

Inter­na­tion­al stu­dents, for exam­ple, pay much high­er tuition fees than domes­tic stu­dents. They are legal­ly lim­it­ed to spend no more than 20 hours per week work­ing for a wage. How­ev­er, in order to pay rent, pay tuition, and oth­er­wise sur­vive, they need to work more than that. Employ­ers know about the 20-hour lim­it, so it is a very com­mon prac­tice for them to pay min­i­mum wage for those 20 hours and then as lit­tle as $5/​hr to $10/​hr for any time beyond that. As well, the large num­ber of inter­na­tion­al stu­dents in need of work means that it is also com­mon for employ­ers to fire stu­dents for no rea­son with­out pay­ing owed wages, know­ing they will have no trou­ble find­ing some­one else to hire. Accord­ing to Singh, Every [inter­na­tion­al] stu­dent faces this issue of wage theft.” Employ­ers some­times also threat­en depor­ta­tion or use the need for ref­er­ences in stu­dents’ appli­ca­tions for per­ma­nent res­i­den­cy as lever­age to get them to work for low­er pay than the min­i­mum to which they are legal­ly enti­tled. As well, work­ers in the net­work have faced oth­er forms of mis­treat­ment, abuse, or even out­right vio­lence, includ­ing sex­u­al vio­lence, from employers.

While the net­work reg­u­lar­ly sup­ports work­ers in fil­ing legal com­plaints at the labour board, it is direct con­fronta­tion that com­pris­es the bulk of their work. Singh said, Legal process­es always work for the rich peo­ple. They are in the favour of the employ­er.” They have found that offi­cial legal process­es are often inef­fec­tive at recov­er­ing owed wages, and that even when they do, they rarely impose con­se­quences on employ­ers who steal wages.

Dhun­na said, The way that the labour court sys­tem also works is that indi­vid­u­al­izes people’s issues and strug­gles, and in many ways invis­i­bi­lizes the exploita­tion, in the sense that one can go through the labour court, and the com­mu­ni­ty and oth­er work­ers will have no aware­ness of the exploita­tion that’s hap­pened. It’s not real­ly brought to the public’s eye. And so one of the things that protest and orga­ni­za­tion does is it vis­i­bi­lizes and brings to the fore the exploita­tion that’s actu­al­ly tak­ing place and impos­es a cost, impos­es as a con­se­quence on employ­ers, who oth­er­wise have no fear of labour courts.” Singh added, We choose to expose that wage thief in the society.”

When a work­er approach­es the net­work with an instance of wage theft, the first thing they do is talk with that work­er about their sit­u­a­tion and about the net­work. Dhun­na said, We let peo­ple know that this isn’t an NGO, this isn’t a char­i­ty. We do strug­gle.” Work­ers are expect­ed to take a lead role in their own case, and to par­tic­i­pate in the strug­gles of oth­ers. As well, they go over the details of the case, includ­ing all of the doc­u­men­ta­tion that the work­er has. Then they put togeth­er a let­ter that they deliv­er to the employ­er, demand­ing that the back wages be paid. If, after mul­ti­ple chances, the employ­er still refus­es to pay, they pub­lish the details of the case on social media and hold a small protest at the work site. If the employ­er still refus­es, they con­tin­ue to esca­late their actions in terms of size and tar­get, includ­ing protest­ing at the employer’s home and sham­ing them in front of their neighbours.

In response, employ­ers have done things like threat­en work­ers with depor­ta­tion or even vio­lence, called the cops, mobi­lized oth­er com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers against them, and filed defama­tion suits – you can donate to the Nau­jawan Sup­port Network’s legal defense fund on GoFundMe. While the com­mu­ni­ty at large has most­ly been quite sup­port­ive of the net­work, there have also been instances of Pun­jabi-lan­guage media hosts pro­pa­gan­diz­ing for employ­ers and mobi­liz­ing them to col­lec­tive­ly oppose work­ers. Dhun­na spec­u­lates that they most like­ly get funds or run the ads of employers.”

It is the defama­tion suits that are the most com­mon response. The pur­pose of such law­suits is to silence and intim­i­date,” accord­ing to Dhun­na, but for the most part, if you are speak­ing the truth, such suits will not suc­ceed. She said, Sure, it will take time in the courts. Sure, it will cost mon­ey, mon­ey that we’ve been able to fundraise. Or, you know, some firms and some com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions have been able to rep­re­sent us pro bono. But it’s not some­thing that scares us, and [we] let work­ers know as well that you shouldn’t be afraid of legal reper­cus­sions or retal­i­a­tion if you’re on the side of the truth. That’s one of the main points that we make to our mem­ber­ship, and a mes­sage that we give to employ­ers as well – that they can take us through the courts, but it’s not some­thing that will deter us from build­ing our pow­er and con­tin­u­ing to organize.”

Even in the face of employ­er oppo­si­tion, by work­ing togeth­er and engag­ing in col­lec­tive protest and direct action, the net­work has won a lot of vic­to­ries. These days, some­times just men­tion­ing the network’s name is enough to get employ­ers to pay up. They esti­mate that they have recov­ered more than $200,000 in wages for work­ers over the last year, and Dhun­na said she has seen a pal­pa­ble increase in con­fi­dence among work­ers” because of their organizing.

She con­tin­ued, There are peo­ple … in activist spaces or on the left who may think that there’s no point in just protest­ing against an employ­er, one by one. They might think it doesn’t real­ly make sense, that it’s not sys­temic. And to those peo­ple, I think we would say that there is a lot of pow­er that is built through col­lec­tive­ly con­fronting our exploiters. And there’s been a ten­den­cy in recent times, or at least since I’ve been orga­niz­ing, to rely on legal reform or advo­ca­cy, and to do so in a way that doesn’t actu­al­ly allow work­ers to talk to one anoth­er and lead the orga­niz­ing. So I would say that it’s real­ly impor­tant that whether we’re in a union or whether we’re in an orga­ni­za­tion, that we orga­nize to con­front the peo­ple direct­ly who exploit us. And to under­stand why we have those shared con­di­tions, how we want to trans­form them. And to then have col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tions on trans­form­ing our con­di­tions, with the aim of build­ing work­er pow­er. And I think the fact that Nau­jawan Sup­port Net­work has grown so much in a year is a tes­ta­ment to that strat­e­gy and that tactic.”