Tibetan Food Terminal Strikers Spoke to Larger Issue of Precarious Work
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Tibetan Food Terminal Strikers Spoke to Larger Issue of Precarious Work

The workers' successful strike has set a precedent.

Tibetan strikers. Photo by Joel Duff of Ontario Federation of Labour.

Tibetan strikers. Photo by Joel Duff of Ontario Federation of Labour.

Working at produce wholesaler Fresh Taste, situated away from the public eye on the Gardiner Expressway, Thupten Nyendak faced racism, discrimination, and unequal pay. Routinely told by management to “go back to his country” and that he “was stupid,” Nyendak, the eventual union steward, had had enough. He could no longer accept that his co-workers, some of whom had worked 19 years at the Ontario Food Terminal, were stuck making $14.50 an hour, while other unionized workers at the Terminal were being paid $20.

In November 2015, the first Toronto Tibetan union was born.

Months of seeking fair treatment and wages at the bargaining table eventually amounted to nothing. The only option was to strike. The initial number of strikers quickly ballooned into an entire community standing in solidarity. Almost every labour union in the area, concerned community members, politicians, and a large swath of Tibetans all supported the movement.

After 11 days of relentless, resolute picketing, an agreeable contract was reached. It was a huge victory: the first ever collective action by Tibetan immigrant workers in Toronto was successful.

Fourteen produce pickers of Fresh Taste ratified their first union contract earlier this month. Through this movement, other newcomer and marginalized workers have come to believe that they too have the power to seek fair wages and dignity.

“These Tibetan workers took on an employer and stood their ground in fighting for fair wages, respect, and dignity,” says Winnie Ng, chair for labour studies at Ryerson University. A participant in the strikes, Ng adds: “it’s not just the cents or dimes, but the sense of self-worth that drove everyone.”

The inspiring and constructive action of the Tibetan workers brought the whole community together. In doing so, it has altered the way new immigrants view dynamics of power and labour rights. “The settlement of this strike will have a lasting impact on other immigrant groups in the city, recognizing that they can make change,” Ng says.

Other workers in the Toronto community were waiting and watching to see how the situation unfolded. There are almost 400 other Tibetan workers inside the OFT, many who are non-unionized, and countless others scattered throughout the city.

“This little strike is having a ripple effect,” says Tenzin Nawang, a community organizer at Parkdale Community Legal Services. Because other warehouse workers supported the strike from afar, employers at the OFT have reportedly started treating all of the workers better. “The other day they brought pizza, [for the workers] they never do that—it was like Christmas.”

Fresh Taste declined to comment on the matter.

Workplace discrimination and differential treatment is common for new arrivals working in the food service industry. A study found that more than 40 per cent of Chinese restaurant workers in the GTA earned less than minimum wage. Employers often take advantage of these workers—mainly people of colour—who are seen as non-confrontational and disposable. But that doesn’t make it acceptable. This underbelly, which buoys our economy and allows society to go about its everyday life, subjects people of colour to working conditions unacceptable for a country like Canada.

In addition, the number of precarious jobs in Ontario is increasing. It is estimated that almost 50 per cent of jobs in the GTA are now contract or temporary. This is especially true for new immigrants and people of colour coming to Canada, looking to start a new life.

“The problem is widespread, far wider than Fresh Taste,” says Cheri DiNovo, strike participant and MPP of Parkdale-High Park.

Income inequality is a growing problem in Ontario. As the gap between the rich and poor widens, decrepit labour laws limit the ability for precarious workers to hold any sort of power. As strikers have noted, everyone should have a right to organize in the workplace without fear of harassment or retribution.

Meanwhile, the province begins its first discussions on labour law review in more than 20 years, and workers are hopeful the balance of power will be shifted.

Until then, it is up to individual workers, with the support of the community, to resist predatory practices and discriminatory wages. A new wave in the labour movement is rising, anchored by the diverse immigrant groups of Ontario. As our new communities become empowered, they see the strength in sticking together. These acts not only benefit them, but also elevate the standard of living for us all.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that there are 400 Tibetan workers at the OFT who are non-unionized. Though many of them are, this is not the case for all. We’ve corrected the story to reflect this. Torontoist regrets the error.