Unheard Voices

Don't test the color of my blood

Culture, Class and Resistance of the Tamil Working Class in Toronto – a presentation May 27, 2009

Note: This is the presentation I gave at the Tamil Studies Conference, Toronto 2009. The formal paper might be published later.

This paper is based on field research and work done with the Workers Action Centre in Toronto and particularly by Tamil activists and workers. Through this paper I explore the issues facing labour changes keeping large numbers of immigrant Tamils in Ontario trapped. I present cases of systemic racism, working below the poverty line, and vulnerable and unstable employment. Furthermore, I will discuss the cultural norms formed in Sri Lanka which affect workers in Toronto, such as accepting hierarchy and authority without questions.  One of the important issues I want to address is the barriers facing Tamil working class here, especially systemic discrimination and language barriers.

This paper also explores how Tamil workers developed their own forms and practices of resistance, challenging both the system and the discrimination of mainstream Canadian society. It tracks the growth of this resistance and shows how apparently powerless Tamil workers strive to create a new home in the unlikely space of poverty in Toronto.

Most of the Tamils from Sri Lanka come to Toronto as refugees fleeing the war. However like many other immigrants, Tamils even if they have high education or experience end up with low-paid and precarious employment and have to work through TEMP agencies to get the Canadian experience and to feed their families. This happens even to those who are highly educated and skilled like Doctors, Engineers from our countries whose qualifications are not recognized here.

In 1999, when I was with Toronto Organizing For Fair Employment, we (TOFFE) interviewed over 200 workers in contingent jobs. We found that the majority of workers we interviewed were immigrant workers among whom most were Sri Lankan Tamils.  Nearly 70% earned less than $1500 per month, and that time the minimum wage was frozen under Mike Harris’ government for years, which was $6000 below the poverty level. So, people had to work 2 – 3 jobs just to meet their basic needs.

Many women who came to Toronto, entered the labour market for the first time in their lives, where they worked alongside men and people of different cultures and languages. They were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.  Many of them were not aware of their basic rights. For example:

There was a woman I worked with, who called me for help to if she could get some financial assistance as she had she could not pay the bills and had a baby. I assumed that she would have claimed Employment Insurance benefit. I found out that she did not even know that she is eligible for EI benefit, for which she had contributed while working for a year. We were able to backdate her claim and get all the money for a year. Without our help and not knowing the system, having the language barrier, she would have just lost her basic rights to the benefit.

According to Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 72% of women who were low-paid in 1996 were still low-paid in 2001.

Tamil working men and women are also often disabled by the cultural norms we bring with us.  To begin with, there is a hierarchy in most societies, especially in the Tamil society of the so-called mainstream class of society of lawyers, doctors, teachers and their families and the working class. The mainstream class and even our own working class does not value the labour and dignity of working class Tamils who slave away in factories, and in industries. There is a sense of shame that is internalized by workers who are cleaners or delivering newspapers.

Without us workers, the cleaning workers, the dishwashers, servers, paper delivery people, hotel workers, and factory workers there is no economy.  Yet our labour, our struggle will never find a place in the awards ceremonies in our own Tamil community.

Take me for an example.

n      1994, I was a board member for a reputed Women’s group.

n      Stood up for an injustice; challenged & spoke out against an action that could destroy the centre and harm the people who come there.

n      A fellow board member, a famous, formally educated feminist, a well known Tamil woman in the community, said: “You should get an education and learn English before speaking out. You don’t know anything…” she dismissed all my years of work and activism because I couldn’t speak  so called proper English.

n      But I did not stop. I brought the issue I was fighting for, and it was addressed because it was valid, whether I spoke proper English or not.

Just think about it, if this is happening to me in a women’s group, how other women could be putdown and not respected because of education, class and culture that has oppressed the working class for years.

We are raised in Sri Lanka to be respectful to social hierarchy and not question authority. Tamil workers transferred this attitude of not questioning hierarchy to their employers here, even when the employers exploited them.

For example:

n      2 WSIB workers – 1 cut off fingers, 1 cut off toes

n      when I asked have you filed WSIB claim?

n      Their response: “how can we do that, that feels like betraying our good employer who helped us for 2 months.”

n      This is certainly not a work ethic or an attitude found among “mainstream” workers.

These workers are also targeted for exploitation because of their ethnic difference and lack of language skills.  Employers assume that they will not complain or fight back.  They were frequently paid less than the minimum wage, less than other workers from other communities, and were frequently passed over for promotion.  From my experience as an organizer for the past 17 years in Canada working with many different communities, most of the low income Tamil workers who contacted me kept working for minimum wage and continue to face exploitation in many different work places where most of other mainstream workers moved on and found jobs with higher pay and better working conditions. Women are in more vulnerable situation. This is because of the language barrier, discrimination against our skin color and gender difference.

People work in these conditions because they have no choice, they need to pay their basic needs else they will end up on the streets.

As new immigrants they simply cannot take this risk. The structural changes in labour protection and minimum wage and their desperation as refugees led to Tamil workers being among the most exploited and among those who made up a large bulk of “racialized working poor.”

According to ‘Working on the Edge’ 2007 report by the Workers’ Action Centre, many immigrants work in precarious employment and earn low wages and their basic rights were violated under the employment standard act. Especially Temp workers who are treated as second class workers and they are paid 40% less than other workers who do the same work.


However, the story is not only one of exploitation and suffering but also of resistance and mobilizing for change. Here we could draw on alternative cultural norms and values that we brought with us.

There is one particular campaign by Tamil workers that I wish to highlight, as it allows us to see the difficulties of the structural and systemic challenges facing workers.  This was the campaign of workers, mostly Tamil, who delivered newspapers for a major newspaper in toronto.  In 2000, there were over 2,000 workers delivering papers.  80% of these were workers of color, and a large number of were Tamils.

–          Workers were paid $4 an hour

–          pick up papers from open parking lots between 2-5 a.m, both summer or winter

–          for many, this was the first or the last job of the day, in addition to two other jobs they do.

–          The Newspaper claimed to be Canada’s “progressive” newspaper. yet it was the working class, refugees, migrants and other racialized workers who paid the cost.

–          2,000 workers stood up to police, their bosses and threw the newspaper all over streets of Scarborough.

–          Scarborough was the strongest district of the resistance, as it had a majority of Tamil workers.

–          The power that comes from years of struggling in oppression is uncontrollable when it breaks out and runs like a river.

–          That day, the white-collar managers and office people of the Newspaper had to clean Scarborough’s streets of their newspapers, and they had to listen to their delivery workers.  In their first attempt, workers were able to unionize for 4 months and get settlements, and in their 2nd attempt, with the Workers Action Centre, in 2006, they were able to secure compensation for gas money, for wait times, and an increase in piece-work wages.

–          But the corporate world does everything it can to stop our resistance. The Newspaper sub-contracted itself, so that it could escape its responsibilities towards those who deliver its papers.

–          But the unity of those workers is still strong, and most of these workers are Tamil.

A second significant example is the role of Tamil workers in the campaign against the minimum wage that was frozen for 9 years.

We organised a campaign in 2005 to raise the minimum wage to the poverty level:

The Workers Action Centre, and the Tamil workers who constituted the largest group among its members campaigned for 3 years to raise the minimum wage.   They spoke to the media, they challenged MPP’s, and demanded that the minimum wage had to be raised to poverty level.  They have slowly been able to push to have the minimum wage from $6.85 to $9.50 by March 31, 2009 and would be raised to $10.25 by March 2010.  While not as far as we want, it nevertheless represents a significant victory for Tamil workers and all other workers in Ontario.

In the minimum wage campaign, every worker who spoke out to media, MPP, ministry of labour and in public were Tamil. They also challenged the media who wanted to portray the working class as poor only. Moreover, we made a remarkable change for the rights of Temp workers. (Some photos taken by John Bonn, titled ‘Workers’ Action Centre ‘Bad Boss’ Bus Tour‘)

We had to raise our a voice louder than ever during this campaign to be heard. Many times, our voice and concerns were undermined, not respected like the others. When we speak in a loud voice people were forced to listen. Loud voice, some may feel as too loud. But, voice is our only tool and strength we have.

I am proud to say these are victories of the Working class in Toronto, and especially of the Tamil workers, breaking the barriers of culture and class. These history making changes were made possible by Tamil workers who have fought hard to bring change for all the workers of Ontario along with others.

In these struggles, Tamil workers who used to passively accept authority and injustice, and who were sometimes ashamed of their work, silently accepting racism have now gone on to fight back, resist, mobilize and make change for not only themselves but everyone in Ontario.

Tamil workers, yes, the cleaners, the dish washers, the cooks, the hotel workers, the factory workers, the newspaper carriers and other general laborers. We have overcome the barriers of class and culture that has undermined our skills and respect for years.

Most of the changes all around the world has happened because of the workers resistance against oppression. The Tamil community, should learn and respect all different jobs and respect our children’s decisions in their future occupations even if they want to be labourers, because it is the working class that builds this economy. As workers, again, we have to be proud of our skills and contribution and the changes that we have made.

Note: How our family structure and education system, and suppresion of women in our culture contrubutes to vulnerable working situation in Canada was discussed by Lucya P, a former temp. worker. The rest of the paper will published soon here.