Montreal advocates call attention to curfew’s impact on migrant workers

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) released a statement on Feb. 12 condemning the impact of the province-wide 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew on unhoused and migrant populations. As housing advocates have continued to push for more resources following Quebec Superior Court Justice Chantal Masse’s order to exempt unhoused populations from the curfew as of Jan. 26, community organizations supporting undocumented and temporary worker populations have also sustained their advocacy throughout the pandemic.

From exploitative labour conditions to an increased police presence on city streets to the threat of deportation or detention, migrant workers are facing several barriers exacerbated by the curfew. Mostafa Henaway, a community organizer at the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC), believes that despite the curfew’s purpose to curb COVID-19 transmission, the measure put many migrant workers in a more precarious position. 

“A lot of the work that […] immigrants and migrants do is not nine-to-five,” Henaway said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “These essential jobs are not office jobs. So people are working in kitchens, people are cleaning, people are working in warehouses, delivery jobs, care work, [and] all of these jobs happen around the clock [….] They’re the ones who are going to be out the most, and they’re going to be the ones targeted the most.”

Tasked with enforcing the curfew, the City of Montreal Police Service (SPVM) reserves the right to demand a letter of attestationa letter from an employer that explains why the employee is to be exempt from the curfew—from anyone found outside during curfew hours. Many warehouse employer letters, Henaway explained, are highly impersonal and often cause prolonged interrogations by police.

“There’s a standard template that employers use that just has the [employee’s] name, where they work, and an employer contact,” Henaway said. “Unfortunately, some warehouses don’t put the employee’s name. It’s just a generic letter […], and employers don’t even print them out sometimes [….] Because of the way that curfews are forced, it’s [often] simply not enough to have a letter. You have to have the letter and your ID [and] the police may not be satisfied with the letter.”

Gaurav Sharma, IWC organizer and UberEats delivery driver, said he noticed some of the police behaviour that Henaway mentioned.

“Sometimes the police [waste time],” Sharma said. “The police are not easily satisfied with [workers’ documents], so [it can] feel like harassment. If the [worker] has the [required] documents, [the police] should release them. Why do they ask questions for more than 15 [to] 20 minutes, wasting time?”

In addition to weak letters of attestation, the increased police presence at night also heightens the threat of deportation for those with vulnerable statuses. While matters of immigration and status fall outside the SPVM’s jurisdiction, Henaway noted that police coordination with the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) poses a risk of deportation or detention to undocumented and temporary foreign workers. 

“If a person has an immigration warrant, the police […] will enforce that immigration warrant [and] hand them over to Canada Border Services Agency,” Henaway said. “So a lot of people live in fear.”

Furthermore, the well-documented systemic racism present within Quebec’s police forces puts additional pressure on workers with precarious immigration statuses, with racialized people facing an increased chance of experiencing racial profiling by police.

“You have areas in the city where there’s nothing but warehouses where people were targeted,” Henaway said. “[For example,] there was a company called Goodfood […] and people were ticketed waiting at the bus stop in front of Goodfood. There’s nothing there. No one is ever [in that area of town].”

While the curfew itself has provoked issues that further marginalize migrant workers, many observers stress that the pandemic has merely exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequities. Jill Hanely, associate professor at the McGill School of Social Work and scientific director of the SHERPA University Research Institute on Migration, Health and Social Services, pointed to the Canadian immigration system and exploitative labour practices as dual factors that plunge migrant workers into precarious labour.

“On the one hand, our immigration system, […] by having precarious immigration statuses which require work permits, [signals] to employers that this is someone who will be here temporarily, [or] who will be nervous about defending their rights,” Hanley said. “But on the other side of that, there is discrimination in our labour market [….] There is a whole subsection of the labour market full of the tough jobs that do not pay as well [and] if you look at who is working in it, it is very gendered, it is very racialized, it is very divided up according to immigration status.”

Since the start of the pandemic, IWC’s advocacy has put Montreal’s Dollarama warehouses under public scrutiny for harbouring unsafe working conditions and employing workers through temporary placement agencies. Sharma suffered a workplace injury at Montreal’s Dollarama warehouse while working there between September 2019 and July 2020.

“One day I was lifting a box, and the boxes are very heavy,” Sharma said. “So I lifted the box, and I felt too much pain in my back so I tried to contact my supervisor. [My] supervisor said ‘go to the hospital,’ and my doctor recommended [best rest]. I was on bed rest for two weeks and later on, I decided to [start delivering for] Uber Eats.”

Before coming to Montreal, however, Sharma was a theatre artist in India. In collaboration with the IWC, Sharma prepared and acted in a street play that portrayed  warehouse workers’ experiences. Sharma first performed at De La Savane stationa metro station on Montreal’s orange line a few kilometres away from the warehouse. Sharma has remained involved with the IWC’s organizing and advocacy.

“I am happy I am associated with IWC because I feel the organization is doing very well,” Sharma said. “They are very honest and very [hard-working]. Last week, the IWC distributed a lot of masks […] and leaflets [to raise awareness] about work rights, the pandemic, [and] health and safety.”

On Jan. 26, the IWC published a statement titled “End curfew repression! Stop police harassment!” that contains four policy recommendations to better protect vulnerable workers. It calls on the city to institute a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which would effectively sever any ties between police officers and the CBSA, thereby halting the city’s role in facilitating deportations. Another recommendation includes the implementation of municipal IDs—a form of identification that allows both status and non-status Montreal workers to legally identify themselves without disclosing their immigration status.

The IWC also recently voiced its support for Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension mayor Giuliana Fumagalli’s Motion visant à soutenir la régularisation des personnes sans statut légal vivant sur son territoire, which proposes that Montreal officials call on the federal government to regularize the status of all migrants in Canada. Introduced to Montreal’s City Council on Feb. 5, the IWC approved of this first step in a statement, but still believes that more must be done. The motion will be put to vote at the next council meeting on Feb. 22. 

Ayo Ogunremi, SSMU Vice-President of External Affairs, encouraged students to support student advocacy on campus and in the Montreal community.

“Those two organizations, particularly Pas de solution policière à la crise sanitaire and Meals for Milton-Parc have [affirmed] the agency and power of students and student organizing to address the injustices that they’re living around,” Ogunremi said. “Being able to channel whatever passion and determination within a collective organization is really the most important thing that students can do.”

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