By Gerard Di Trolio
On February 10 at the IBEW Local 353 offices, the Tamil Workers Network held a community forum on workers’ rights.
The forum’s goal was to reach out to the Tamil community in Toronto and let them know how their rights at work are changing because of Bill 148 and involved speakers covering topics from the recent law changes, rights under the Employment Standards Act, the rights of injured workers, how to unionize, and the successful union drive at Ace Bakery.
The Tamil Workers Network is about three years old, and is one of the Diverse Workers Networks that the Toronto and York Region District Labour Council and Labour Community Services have helped to set up. Currently, such networks also exist for Chinese, Ethiopian/Eritrean, Filipino, and Somali workers.
The main role of the Tamil Workers Network is to inform the community about workers and union rights as well as offering them somewhere to go with their concerns about work.
“We want to create a safe space where people can reach out and discuss their concerns,” says Ram Selvarajah of OPSEU and Tamil Workers Network steering committee member, a volunteer with the Tamil Workers Network.
So far, in its short history, the Tamil Workers Network has held events about Fight for $15 and Fairness and Make It Fair, encouraged Tamil participation in the Labour Day Parade, and has help to host Tamil language call-in shows about workers’ rights on CMR Diversity FM 101.3 in Toronto.
Raising the visibility of the workers network in the Tamil community is an ongoing project. The Tamil Workers Network has made reaching out to young workers, including those in high school who are beginning to enter the labour market an important priority. This serves a dual purpose.
“Many parents in our community are working two or three jobs and don’t have the luxury of coming out to an event like this,” says Gobi Mahendrarajah, of OPSEU and Tamil Workers Network steering committee member.
And even if the network can’t help an individual directly with their problem, Mahendrarajah says, “If we can’t assist you we will connect you with an organization that can.”
An issue that has raised the organization’s profile in the Tamil community recently is the case of four Tamil craftsmen from India who were brought over as temporary foreign workers by a Hindu Temple in Toronto.
The men are skilled sculptors and were hired to renovate the temple’s gopuram, which are the ornate gatehouse towers at the entrance of Hindu temples found in Southern India.
But the quartet found themselves paid less than their contract stated and were sleeping on cots in the temple’s bed bug infested boiler room.
While the men returned to India as the story was breaking, the Tamil Workers Network has been at the forefront of trying to publicize the incident in the media and the Tamil community.
Tamil Workers Network’s visibility on this issue is an important part of its ongoing project of raising its profile.
“We can lead by example and give hope on an issue like this,” says Gobi Sooriyakumar of CUPE 4948 and Tamil Workers Network steering committee member.
Towards the end of the meeting, the audience heard from Sekar and Rajeepan who are both longtime employees of Ace Bakery in Toronto and participated in the recent successful union organizing drive there.
Sekar and Rajeepan talked about the conditions in the bakery that pushed workers towards wanting to join a union and how they managed to organize one after a nearly ten year on and off effort.
While the first contract is still being negotiated, Rajeepan says “They have already started treating us better and not yelling at us anymore.”
The union victory shows how Diverse Worker Networks help build working class power. Both the Tamil Workers and Filipino Workers Network helped and encouraged their community members who worked at Ace Bakery in Toronto.
“Both networks were able to build trust in each community to go for the union. It builds confidence, they knew who they can go to talk to in a trusting relationship about questions connected to work and the union. Those workers needed to know there was a larger network behind them,” says Selvarajah.