Statement on Bonduelle’s decision to pull its Tecumseh re-zoning application

This is part of my on – air commentary this afternoon after 4:30 PM on The ShakeUp Campus Community Radio program on CJAM 99.1FM. It is a response to various local media reports  (and Here) in reaction to Bonduelle’s decision to pull its re-zoning application:

On Wednesday Bonduelle announced it was withdrawing its application to Tecumseh Town Council for a re-zoning of a portion of their property so they could house up to 60 migrant workers in a renovated office building.

The company claimed that having the workers live on site would be safer for the workers, and that since migrant workers are housed on site at greenhouse operations and farms they should be able to do the same on the processing plant site. It should be stressed here that food processing plants are NOT farms or greenhouse operations – they are more akin to factories.

On behalf of the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre, and with representatives from Legal Assistance Windsor and Justicia for Migrant Workers, I was a delegation at a public meeting in Tecumseh in January where we argued against the re-zoning application. Here is a summary of the main arguments:

  • The re-zoning is contrary to the Town’s own master plan
  • The diagram produced by the company was not to scale and it was unclear the living arrangements would be adequate for the number of workers proposed
  • Having workers housed on a plant that suffered a major fire last year is obviously not a safe option
  • Workers will be segregated from the rest of the community and from allies who can advocate on their behalf
  • Isolated workers are less likely to speak up in the workplace in defence of their rights
  • The company would have total control over the movement of the workers and it is not clear visitors would be able to access company private company – this is uncomfortably close to indentureship
  • The plan is to hire only males for the bunk house which is a discriminatory practice
  • Migrant workers seem to be good enough to work here but not live in the community in which they play a crucial economic role.
  • What we should be talking about is a Migrant Workers Bill of Rights such as the one proposed by the Ontario Federation of Labour (more about that in a minute)

At the public meeting some residents expressed concerns about having Black men near their backyards and in the community. This racist thinking was a minority expression at the public meeting. The people who were recognized as delegates, including Adrian Munro, a migrant worker, spoke to the points I’ve just outlined. As worker advocates we recognize that migrant workers are a feature of a globalized economy that wreaks havoc on local communities around the world. We speak of the loss of the middle class in our country yet the global south achieves only great inequality between rich and destitute. To survive means to travel thousands of miles from home to make a living. Migrant deserve our solidarity not racist indentureship. Our goal as worker advocates is to make social and political changes so migrant workers are not treated as second class workers. In other words, just because the global economy treats workers as mere inputs doesn’t mean we as workers ourselves have to play into that system.

Tecumseh and similar area towns are small communities in a globalized economy; an economy that relies on low wages and low corporate taxes; an economy that is run by private investors who seek maximum profit achieved almost entirely on the backs of workers and communities deprived of fair tax revenues. A proper response in communities should not be to treat workers like garden rakes and house them in what amounts to sheds in between shifts, or to react with racist indignation to migrant workers. The response required is a political one where workers and their representatives, citizens, business leaders and political leaders carve out a coherent Canadian labour strategy in contrast to the ‘wild west’ investor run “casino economy” that pits us against each other. A start would be a community discussion on the 8 point proposed Migrant Workers Bill of Rights… (pp 18 – 19 MWBR).

Social Justice Report for Windsor District Labour Council: February 10, 2015

Note to WDLC on public meeting at Tecumseh Council:

January 19 2015

On January 13, 2015, in my role as president of the Windsor Workers’ Education Centre ( I also sit as Member at Large for Social Justice on the Windsor District Labour Council executive), I attended a public meeting in Tecumseh regarding Bondeulle’s proposal to renovate an existing building on the site of the packaging plant to house up to 60 migrant workers. Also attending were Marion Overholt and Cathy Kolar of Legal Assistance Windsor, Chris Ramsaroop, organizer and educator for Justicia for Migrant Workers, and Adrian Munroe, a migrant worker. The public meeting was to hear arguments regarding a proposed by-law amendment to change a current zoning from ‘restricted industrial’ to ‘residential’ on a portion of plant property. The company claims that since workers are housed on site at greenhouses and farms, they can be housed on plant property.

The company stated at the meeting they want this on site housing for the safety of the workers. Right now there are a handful of workers living in Windsor who get transported by the company to the plant. They are ramping up the number of migrant workers because of expected increases in production. The company has produced a sketch of the housing but it is not yet clear the housing meets standards – it is a bunkhouse style arrangement. The workers will be Jamaican men. The company also claims that the work will not suit students as it is off-summer work.

Marion argued that the plan is in contradiction with the town’s own master plan and that the zoning bylaw amendment should not go ahead without further study. Cathy, Chris and I argued around the themes that the workers are in effect being isolated and segregated from the general population. In effect the company controls their movements, who they see and making it harder for them to feel they can speak up freely if they face problems in the workplace. As well, we argued that these workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They should be able to live in housing in the community so they are free to interact with allies, community members, and be able to shop as they see fit. For example, there are no discount grocery stores in Tecumseh – the community is an upper middle class suburb geared towards a mobile population with above average wages: imagine riding a bike for groceries at Manning and Tecumseh Roads.

As long as the global economy forces the migration of hundreds of millions of workers around the world, we will have foreign workers here. This isn’t the issue for us. Chris Ramsaroop made the point that the problem lies in the failure of the federal and provincial governments to institute and labour plan for the country and regions including a manufacturing policy. Only then could all Canadians really understand how many jobs there are, where they are, and how many foreign workers are needed. As well, if the workers are good enough to work here, why are they not good enough to be citizens? The way forward is NOT to point fingers at the workers but at the system that denies them the rights Canadian workers enjoy, and also the right to citizenship if they desire it. (OFL statement and link to a proposed Migrant Workers’ Bill of Rights)

The proposal to amend the bylaw by Bonduelle will set a bad precedent in that they are equating a packaging plant to a greenhouse/farm operation. Yet farming and packaging are two very different things, and the fire last year at the plant should be enough of a warning about how incredibly dangerous it is to house workers on plant property. A packing plant is more akin to a manufacturing plant and quite different from a farm or greenhouse operation.

I think it is critical that the WDLC take a stand on how migrant workers are treated in the area. In my opinion the WDLC must speak out in support of the rights of workers to have off site residences (the company claims to have looked into alternatives to on site housing), and to counter the perception that migrant workers are taking Canadian jobs. The real issue on that point  is the failure of other levels of government to enter into discussions with the public, labour representatives and migrant worker advocates on a labour strategy for the country. There will be another public meeting in 15 to 30 days to allow more public consultation on this issue.

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At labour council February 10 I presented the following motion: “Whereas the dignity, health and safety of migrant/temporary foreign workers are at risk while living in a bunkhouse on company property, and whereas there has already been a serious fire at the Bonduelle packing plant in July, 2014, and whereas housing migrant/temporary foreign workers on isolated farm properties is not the same as housing such workers in a town or city on what amounts to factory property, the Windsor District Labour Council is opposed to the company’s plan to house migrant/temporary foreign workers on company property where workers are isolated from the rest of the community. The WDLC also urges the Town of Tecumseh to work with the company to house workers in the broader community with proper transportation provided so workers can commute to their jobs at Bonduelle.”

On February 11th, before the WDLC could act on the motion, CBC Windsor reported that Bonduelle had pulled its proposal to house migrant workers on their property and that the company will “…review all its options at the plant, including increasing productivity.” Also the company stated it was pulling the application because of the “…public’s reaction to adding residences for up to 60 seasonal migrant workers.”

Following is the remainder of my report to WDLC:

As you may have heard, a Detroit worker, James Robertson, hit the news about his plight walking to work. He became the subject of a crowd funding campaign where $350,000.00 was raised. The thing is, as he recognized himself in an interview, he is not alone and in fact is one of millions of working poor people who not only have to live on low wage jobs, but tax cuts have destroyed public services like mass transit, that serve working people. In fact it occurred to me that fair taxation is the original crowd funding idea that helps millions at a time, not one person out of pity or charity. Taxes are the glue that hold society together and yet to many working class people have fallen for the tax cut mantra. I’ve proposed a campaign called Walk a Mile in My Shoes, where non-union, low wage workers can tell their stories and make the case for a living wage backed up by fair taxation. This is in fact what workers gained in the 20th century and what is being dismantled now. If workers have to rely on social media charity, we will continue to falter as a society. I’m hoping we can kick off a campaign soon in collaboration with an organization in Detroit to be confirmed. A hands across the river campaign would show the similar hardships workers on both sides of the river face.

As you know the Scoop Newspaper has stopped publishing and lesser known is that Ann Beer’s bookstore, The Bookroom on Wyandotte near the university, is going to close as she can no longer run it. These two Windsor institutions really cannot just disappear and I have been meeting with interested parties to put together a plan to keep them going. Briefly the idea is to acquire a common space that would be a non-profit social enterprise and which would house the workers’ centre with funding for 1-2 para-legals and a coordinator, the newspaper, a makerspace, and a café/bookstore. The workers’ centre would continue to educate and advocate for workers and workers’ rights. The point of the makerspace is to be a lab of sorts to investigate new technologies like digital fabricators for community production. The café would be on the model of Democracy cafes where people come together to discuss issues around work, politics, economics and so forth with action coming from such discussion. It would also provide jobs and hope for workers. The newspaper is probably the key component to critique the existing political and economic realities and further, produce constructive, useful and doable alternatives that are not covered by the mainstream media (MSM). All MSM does is serve as an echo chamber for the elites who are out of ideas and continue to propose austerity, and cutbacks for workers. Technology has progressed to the point where it is already possible for small start-ups to manufacture what the community needs using digital fabricators. Communication technology can be used to produce a newspaper in print and online with a website and social media including an Internet radio station. The Democracy Café can bring people together in a common space with all this going on so action can take place – in other words, social media only goes so far. It takes people in community in person to generate ideas that lead to action and by action I mean real change in the way we organize ourselves around work and an economy. The goal is to democratize the economy and create democratically run workplaces on a co-op/social enterprise model, and do this on the local level. Much is happening along this model in Detroit and we can learn by collaborating with like-minded organizers there and elsewhere around the world and Canada.

I am working on funding ideas including something I can approach the local labour community with for start-up funding. The goal is to become a self-supporting non-profit enterprise in the near future.

There is a lot wrong with the world and we can easily see that the ruling class – nationally, globally and locally – has no real clue on how to address, democratically, the failures of capitalism and globalization. A globalized economy with free trade agreements was promised to bring prosperity to all, and instead it has brought us closer to war, has increased inequality, has heightened racism and islamophobia, and created the specter of a police state in Canada and elsewhere. It’s time for the working class to get organized ourselves because if the ruling class has a plan for the future it does not include millions of workers around the world. It should be obvious that while the rich get richer, what’s in store for us are surveillance, police violence and war. The way out is to organize around our commonalities, build resilient communities, learn how to better cooperate in common cause, and learn new technologies and apply them democratically meeting peoples’ real needs. He common space project is a start towards a truly democratic, inclusive, cooperative alternative to the global capitalist nightmare unfolding before us.