New Canadian Media

by Jennifer Huang in Toronto

 

I recently read an article entitled “The New Chinese Working Class and the Canadian Left” by Justin Kong that reinvigorated a passion of mine – organizing immigrant workers. 

 

As Kong puts it, “the conditions for an immigrant left are ripe in the Chinese community.” 

 

Having spent the last four years working as an organizer with the Toronto & York Region Labour Council trying to organize Chinese union workers, you can understand my excitement when I read Kong’s article. 

 

Yes, you read correctly – I wasn’t organizing Chinese workers into unions; rather I was organizing “the already organized.” 

 

I wasn’t organizing Chinese workers into unions; rather I was organizing “the already organized.”

 

Much like Kong observed, the Chinese community was – and is – very much unengaged with the Canadian left. Looking around, I could see that there were in fact many Chinese Canadians who were union members, but did not self-identify as such.

 

Building trade union consciousness

 

At the Labour Council, we developed the Chinese Workers’ Network where we went around asking local unions to identify Chinese union members from within their ranks.

 

We invited these members to Chinese-language events where we did education work about the importance of unions, explained and de-mystified union structures and celebrated the many gains that the labour movement has achieved for Canada (debunking the myth that Canada is a benevolent country with good social programs that no one really had to struggle for). 

 

Last I checked, we had over 500 people identified on our database as Chinese. We developed a committee who would translate articles about workers’ struggles into Chinese, and put these up on our website.

 

[L]istening to the stories about their employer’s outrageous abuse and violation of human rights, I knew that our organizing efforts were not enough.

 

Even with the limited resources we had to dedicate towards this initiative, we’ve had tremendous success.

 

Perhaps the best example was when one group of Chinese workers contacted us to help them organize a union. One hundred per cent of the workers voted for a union, but listening to the stories about their employer’s outrageous abuse and violation of human rights, I knew that our organizing efforts were not enough. 

 

Engaging new immigrant workers

 

What we began at the Labour Council was only one side of a two-pronged approach. We need to continue this mobilizing externally into the community where workers are already organized – in their faith groups, community associations, sites of recreation and leisure, etc.

 

While I was working as an adult literacy instructor, some of my students found part-time work as community health ambassadors.

 

These students were specifically recruited because their first language was not English, so while they were trained in English to deliver health-related topics, they were expected to organize members in their own communities (using their own social networks) to deliver these workshops in their mother tongues. 

 

As I witnessed the effectiveness of this model at the time, I wondered why unions couldn’t adopt a similar community approach with many of the new immigrant workers?

 

If the Canadian labour movement is to survive and actually grow, all unions should be dedicating resources to develop a political left within immigrant communities.

 

These workshops would be advantageous not only to the worker learning about his/her rights, but could also offer an array of tips to unions about where organizing efforts should be focused. 

 

If the Canadian labour movement is to survive and actually grow, all unions should be dedicating resources to develop a political left within immigrant communities – and towards the goal of organizing workers into unions.

 

Central labour bodies in each region need to take a hard look to see which non-English speaking communities are their largest demographic, and recognize not all communities of colour are recent immigrants – some have been in Canada for a long time.

 

Organizing Chinese immigrant workers

 

There is a good opportunity right now to organize a left within Chinese immigrant workers, but we need leadership and more resources from all parts of organized labour to do this. 

 

Workers in the Chinese diaspora, who are underpaid and undervalued, often feel that they have no choice, but to accept their working conditions; otherwise they face unemployment or self-employment. They feel that they lack the language skills to find employment in the Canadian mainstream, or seek help to remedy their situation.

 

With Jason Kenney at the helm, the Conservatives have done a wonderful job of convincing Chinese Canadians they are watching out for their best interests.

 

It is precisely because workers find themselves in these situations of precariousness that the labour movement has an opportunity to engage them. To not do so is to our detriment. 

 

Our prolonged absence in any form of sustained engagement with the Chinese immigrant working class has already begun to bolster the ranks of the political right. With Jason Kenney at the helm, the Conservatives have done a wonderful job of convincing Chinese Canadians they are watching out for their best interests. 

 

Kong puts it best: “If we look throughout Canada’s history, we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white men has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.”

 

A labour movement that is inclusive needs to create – and sustain – a welcoming space for all workers regardless of language, race, religion or accent. It is my hope to continue the discussion of how we might engage Chinese immigrant workers – but more broadly, all immigrant workers.


A child-immigrant herself, Jennifer Huang worked as an organizer at the Toronto & York Region Labour Council where she spearheaded the Chinese Workers’ Network (CWN). Its success spurred the creation of the other workers’ networks – Filipino, Tamil and Somali. 

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Commentary

by Justin Kong in Toronto

The results of the recent federal election shows that we need a better understanding of how immigrant groups are mobilized and integrated into formal spheres of Canadian politics. This two-part series focuses on the Chinese community in metropolitan areas of Canada. Part II examines the new Chinese working class, how conditions are ripe for the development of a Chinese left and what this all means for the Canadian left.

With the devastating electoral defeat of the New Democratic Party last month in the 2015 Federal Elections, it’s clear that the Canadian left must adjust their strategy. The new strategy needs to support the development of a progressive, grassroots immigrant power to counter the presence of more conservative and moderate elements within these communities.  

In the Chinese diaspora, while there are a number of strong progressive leaders at various levels of government and in the community at large, the presence of a mobilized, grassroots Chinese immigrant left has yet to be felt in recent years.

This lies partly in the fact that one group has long been unengaged: the Chinese immigrant working class. 

New wave of Chinese immigrants, new attitudes towards labour

Contrary to the common trope of the rich Chinese investor immigrant, one merely has to look around the many Chinese ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto and Vancouver to see that there are actually tremendous populations of workers labouring in the ethnic economy. These workers are often engaged in the food and services industry in precarious conditions and without the full protection of employment laws and standards.

This population has long been here and has remained relatively unengaged by the mainstream left and organized labour. A small group find themselves in the progressive political spaces of community labour organizations such as the Workers Action Centre in Toronto. 

What has changed in recent years, however, is the composition of this Chinese working class and the increasing maturity of the Chinese diaspora in Canada. These two conditions have important ramifications for the possibility of a progressive Chinese element and the Canadian left at large.

In the past two decades the flow of Chinese immigrants, which had previously been largely dominated by those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, has shifted to a flow that is increasingly dominated by those from mainland China. 

Given that immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan have likely been here for a longer period of time it is more likely that they have attained more upward mobility with less ‘working class’ members. More importantly these groups have radically different pre-migration attitudes towards the left and labour politics than the new wave from China. 

This population has long been here and has remained relatively unengaged by the mainstream left and organized labour.

In Hong Kong, family histories of communist persecution, the infamous 1967 riots which linked trade unionism with social instability and communist insurgency, combine to stifle the possibility of broad labour politics amongst the Hong Kong populace. It should be no surprise then that Canadian labour politics will find it difficult to engage this group.

On the other hand, the new Chinese immigrant working class is largely composed of skilled professionals from mainland China who grew up in very different conditions. Growing up and living in Mainland China means this group has at the very least a basic understanding of concepts of class, capitalism and exploitation — important preconditions to any progressive and labour politics. 

With the economic rise of China and the proliferation of consumer culture, leftist politics may have had little salience amongst this population when they were still living in China. 

After immigrating the situation becomes different. Labouring in the deskilling, dehumanizing and precarious Canadian economy reignites in the Chinese worker the earlier internalizations of working class consciousness and left politics.

Due to these factors, this new Chinese working class, more than any previous Chinese wave, has the potential to constitute a progressive, left element within the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

Bridging the ethnic and the mainstream

As waves upon waves of Chinese immigrants have settled in Canada, the Chinese diaspora as a whole has become increasingly mature. This maturity manifests in an increasing number of potential progressive political leaders who are able to connect the mainstream with the ethnic.

These two developments together represent the fertile conditions for the development of a left grassroots counter presence in the Chinese community. In the absence of sustained engagement, this new Chinese working class may remain inactive in formal politics and quite possibly bolster the ranks of the political right and moderates.

Chinese churches, for example, appear to be making in-roads with this new Chinese working class. Grounded in the ethnic community through their ‘service’, Chinese churches in Toronto have initiated sermons and fellowship groups catered specifically to Chinese restaurant workers. For the left, such a development is illustrative of the extensive vacuum that exists.

This new Chinese working class has the potential to constitute a progressive, left element within the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

If we look throughout Canada’s history we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.

In order for the Canadian left to establish a foothold in immigrant communities for electoral struggles or otherwise, the establishment of grassroots strength within these communities is essential. To do this the immigrant working classes and political leadership of immigrant communities must be mobilized and connected with the mainstream left.

By supporting and building the emerging immigrant left is to reverse the decades of decline of the Canadian left. The conditions for an immigrant left is ripe in the Chinese community and it may likely be the case in other immigrant communities as well. All that remains for us to do is to come together and figure out how we can make it a reality — and that, of course, is the hard part.


Justin Kong studies sociology and is involved with community and labour organizing in Toronto.

Journalist Ranjit Bhaskar mentored the writer of this article, through the New Canadian Media mentorship program. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

Do you have dreams of starting your own business one day? Are you a budding entrepreneur age 15-29? There are a few spots left in Skills for Change’s brand new Youth Entrepreneurs Program in Toronto.

The program allows participants to connect with like-minded peers and members of the business community and access the resources they need to take their business ideas to the next level.

The program starts on Thursday, Jan. 22, and includes a 12-week program (Thursdays 5.30-7.30 p.m.) with interactive workshops, networking events and more.

For more details contact Jin at olberg@skillsforchange.org.

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There are only three days left to nominate an immigrant for the 2013 RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards! The nomination phase of the program ends on Feb. 28 at 11:59 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). While some of the winners from previous years include well-known figures such as rapper K’naan or  sprinter Donovan Bailey, the beauty [...]

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Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

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