Kelti Cameron | CUPE Staff

Migrante Canada is a Canada-wide alliance of Filipino migrant and immigrant organizations. Working with CUPE 40, a local representing education workers in Calgary, they created a Global Justice Fund project in 2021 called Undocumented Workers are Workers - Regularize Now! which supports their organizing program.

Organizers reach out to temporary foreign workers and convene workshops about their rights and how to assert these rights. Lately, Migrante Canada has been focusing on meeting with undocumented non-status workers to learn about their experiences, provide guidance to support their organizing efforts, and find ways to share workers’ stories without putting them at risk.

It is political

Migrante Canada Director Marco Luciano says the importance of this project with CUPE is political. “As migrants working in a host country like Canada, we truly see ourselves as part of the workforce and therefore we should also be part of the labour movement.”

He believes it is crucial to connect with organized labour in different sectors to really build solidarity and an understanding of the role migrants play in the country, as they are part of our communities and will likely keep working here.

Since the 1800s, Canada’s colonial project has been dependent on migrant labour. Migrant workers built the Canadian Pacific Railway, as well as major urban centers across the country. 

Two centuries later, even our food security depends on migrant labour. When COVID-19 hit, farmers from southern Ontario and central Alberta lobbied the federal government to let migrant farm workers come into Canada, because they could not plant and harvest food without them.

The Canadian government is taking the wrong approach to claims of a future labour shortage by relying on the recently expanded Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). In sectors such as accommodation and food services, construction, long-term care and hospitals, and in some manufacturing industries, up to 30% of the workforce can be temporary foreign workers. Instead, labour activists say the government should be encouraging employers to incentivize workers, and provide higher wages and better working conditions.

Global migration is big business. In Canada alone, Filipino migrants and immigrants send over $1 billion a year to the Philippines. “It has become a systemic way of making profit from people — from migrant workers,” Luciano says. He adds that our profit-driven economy engages in the “trade” of people and benefits from recruiting and deporting migrant labour.

Temporary foreign worker programs prey on the vulnerability of migrants to ‘lower the bar’ and establish low wages and poor working conditions for the entire working class. According to Luciano, temporary foreign worker programs exist “precisely to divide workers because one worker is cheaper than the other.” Canada is one of the major players in the world using and abusing migrant labour.

In fact, most migrants do not want to leave their countries of origin to start a new life somewhere else. Poverty and joblessness, as well as the search for safety and stability because of violence, military occupation, war, or the climate crisis are all driving forces behind their need to leave home. And their desperation to earn money in Canada and to support family abroad forces them into jobs under conditions that less vulnerable workers — workers who are not in fear of being deported — simply won’t accept. 

Luciano says that without a fight, “there is always going to be a temporary worker program. There is always going to be cherry picking of a ‘good’ migrant to stay in Canada, and a ‘not-so-good’ migrant to be deported. Why? Because the McDonald’s, the Tim Hortons, the big hotels in Canada need cheap and disposable labour, captured labour. And if a worker complains, they get a new one. The complainer will be sent back home.”

Government policies support these employer tactics. A good example is Canada’s Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which is the contract between the government, the employer and the worker. It ties the worker to only one employer. If they lose their job or leave that employer, they are on their own until they can get a new LMIA, which takes a long time.

When the process takes too long, many workers fall into the cracks. They become undocumented, meaning they lose their immigration status and they can get deported.

According to Luciano, the deportation system is designed to perpetuate the temporariness of these migrants and to provide a source of labour as cheap as possible to employers. “It is all part of a package, and it is designed that way,” he says.

It is personal

CUPE 40 President Clay Gordon says the CUPE Global Justice Fund project is meaningful because of the current situation for migrant workers, and also for his members. Being able to lend political support while also increasing member engagement and solidarity are what make this project so important for him.

Gordon remembers feeling excited when the project was being developed: “Maybe our local could do something for a group of people that weren’t just within our local, but were part of our immediate community.” 

CUPE 40 has a large Filipino membership. Many know friends, family members, and people in the community who have firsthand experience with Canada’s immigration system and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Gordon wants to encourage CUPE members who have experienced Canada’s immigration system to speak up because they have important insights and information to share about their struggles.

He knows there are CUPE members who are hesitant to come forward because they are worried about their job security and the repercussions of asserting their rights. Some members may be scared because of experiences with the immigration system, or maybe they worked in non-unionized jobs where they could be easily fired for speaking up.

Gordon believes the local’s involvement will help others understand what is happening to people within their community. The pushback Gordon got from some local members when he proposed the project reinforced this need to build understanding. “Why would we focus on anything other than our issues, and why are we putting resources into people who not part of our local?” Gordon recalls some people asking.

Gordon is clear that the issues facing temporary foreign workers, whether undocumented or not, affect us all. “We are all part of one community. You know that CUPE and other unions have led the way on workers’ rights for decades, like on the 40-hour work week, on overtime, on weekends. So, the work that we do is going to benefit everyone.”

This project, and ones like it, make our union stronger. It aims to stop employers from exploiting workers and we all need to stand united as workers in this fight.

“Maybe us doing this work can remove the stigma from people’s minds that foreigners are coming and taking their jobs. This isn’t a fact — they are doing the jobs that nobody wants to do, this work is needed, it is appreciated. And maybe with us partnering with a group like Migrante Canada, it will help people within our organization realize that this isn’t an issue of people coming to take our jobs,” Gordon adds.

We can’t do this alone

Luciano says the solidarity and allyship the Global Justice Fund project aims to create is essential. “Migrants’ issues and the call for permanent residency cannot be won by migrants alone. Migrants do not vote. Migrants are very afraid to speak out. But solidarity and alliances between local workers and migrant workers are very important in the struggle for migrant justice.” 

The Canadian government is considering whether migrant workers in Canada should have rights equal to other workers. The answer lies in how Canada chooses to treat racialized workers and communities, particularly those coming from poor countries and working low-wage jobs. 

There are at least 1.7 million migrants in Canada, or 1 in 23 residents, who do not have equal rights. At least 1.2 million people in Canada are given temporary work permits or study or refugee claimant permits each year. Low-wage workers in this group have no access to permanent residency, so eventually they are forced to either leave Canada or stay in the country undocumented. Currently there are over 500,000 undocumented people in Canada. 

The Migrant Rights Network, Canada’s largest migrant-led coalition, is calling for a regularization program that ensures permanent resident status for all 500,000 undocumented people and their families.

There are signs the Canadian government is looking into some type of a regularization program. It is not clear what it will look like or when it will be implemented. What is certain is that it wouldn’t even be a consideration if it wasn’t for the migrants and their allies who have spoken out, lobbied, and mobilized across the country pressuring to respect the dignity and security of migrant workers.

Gordon hopes to see more local members involved with Migrante Canada in the future, providing help with workshops or sharing information. The project launched during the pandemic, and everyone involved is ready to step up the work making more migrant voices heard, and getting their message out to all levels of government, the labour movement and beyond.

Migrante Canada is a Canada-wide alliance of Filipino migrant and immigrant organizations. Founded in October 2010, it has 13 chapters and member organizations across the country. It is a founding member of the Migrant Rights Network.

CUPE 40 represents Calgary Board of Education Employees who work in facility and environmental services.

Global Justice Fund

Worker-to-worker solidarity is at the heart of CUPE’s global justice work. Through our Global Justice Fund, CUPE members have opportunities to build relationships with workers and activists around the world.

The fund supports and strengthens connections with workers and grassroots movements demanding decent jobs, living wages, safe workplaces, justice and peace.

The fund supports projects that advance our fights for workers’ rights, for access to public services and land rights, and for an end to war and violence in all its forms.

By learning from each other and sharing our experiences, all workers are stronger. CUPE members, locals, councils, divisions, and committees can all contribute to the Global Justice Fund.

Learn more about CUPE’s international solidarity work, and support the Global Justice Fund, at