When it comes to making sure workers know our rights, nothing beats community organizing. We have educational sessions at our 720 Spadina Avenue office, but more importantly we make sure these workers’ rights workshops are being organized directly in the communities where people regularly deal with violations of their workplace rights.
Our Know Your Rights workshops about basic labour rights have become especially important since the Ontario government cuts to enforcement and staffing at the Ministry of Labour. In this edition of Stories from the Frontlines, Workers’ Action Centre organizer Nadira talks about the benefits of grassroots community education.
Workers’ Action Centre: How are you bringing WAC to your community?
Nadira: When I first started organizing about workers’ rights in Regent Park, there was a real sense of hopelessness within the wider community. A large number of people in Regent Park are in retail or food service, so they work 2 or 3 precarious jobs and are struggling to provide for their kids. They thought trying to improve working conditions was a waste of time, so it was a huge challenge to get people to come out or take action.
That’s why I decided to bring the resources we have at the Workers’ Action Centre directly to them instead of expecting them to come to me. I thought to myself, why not run Know Your Rights workshops in Bengali at different community organizations? I also asked other organizers to help me reach out in Chinese and Tamil. People began to attend one, two, maybe three workshops, and were connecting what they learned with their own experiences at work. Even people who were no longer in the workforce started to see that a lack of decent work hurts the whole community.
How are Know Your Rights workshops helping in the wake of the Ford government’s decision to strip away enforcement of workers’ rights?
Nadira: By the time Bill 47 brought cuts to workers’ rights, the workshops had boosted my community’s confidence so much that we were no longer feeling hopeless. We took real ownership of the rights won through Bill 148 because we were involved in putting pressure on the government to bring in things like paid sick days, fair scheduling, and equal pay for equal work. Despite the political game that made us lose many of the new rights, we now know without a doubt that workers have the power to win. That power begins with knowing what rights we have right now.
Newcomers looking for work appreciate the workshops because it prepares them to deal with temp agencies that too often don’t respect their rights. Others realize for the first time that in 2018 they had the right to 2 paid sick days, improved public holiday pay, and equal pay for equal work, and they can still make a claim for these things even though the rights are now gone. Some people have looked for help before, but faced language barriers at every turn. They find it very useful that we have educational materials in their own language, and a Workers’ Rights Info Phone Line they can call for help at (416) 531-0778.
Do you think that the Know Your Rights workshops you organize are having an impact beyond your community?
Nadira: Yes! Sharing our rights at work is like planting a seed and I already see it blooming. Learning their rights on the job is inspiring more and more people in my community to take action. The workshops show that our labour laws are not strong enough, so workers want to fight for change, starting with passing on what they’ve learned to their family and friends.
When the provincial government cancelled our equal pay for equal work legislation, $15 minimum wage and the 2 paid sick days last year, it was incredibly frustrating. But being treated as disposable only makes us want to organize more! People in my neighbourhood feel capable and strong and know that together we can win.
Across the Greater Toronto Area and Ontario, organizers like Nadira are delivering Know Your Rights workshops. Within a 2-hour workshop–held in Bengali, Mandarin, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, or Tamil–workers can learn about recent changes to their rights, including the current rules around minimum wage, hours of work, public holidays, leaves, vacation, misclassification, and temp agency work. To top it all off, we also explain how to defend these rights. Does your community or organization need a Know Your Rights workshop? Email us at email@example.com. You can also click here to access the workers’ rights factsheets we distribute at these workshops.