When Panya came to Canada from Thailand as a migrant worker seeking a better life for her and her family, the last thing she expected was to get arrested and jailed for trying to earn a living.
But that’s the harsh reality Panya, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, experienced when she and nearly 100 others got arrested on April 2 in the first of what No One Is Illegal-Toronto calls the largest series of raids targeted at migrant workers in Ontario to date.
Panya gathered at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) on June 6 with other migrant workers (two of whom who were scheduled to speak but were deported before they could do so) and labour and community activists to share her story at “Stop The Raids!”, a campaign launched by No Is Illegal-Toronto to organize a “raids response network” as well as a community discussion on the recent crackdown on illegal migrant workers by Immigration Canada.
“Panya expected a good pay and good treatment at her job in Canada, but when she came she didn’t find that at all,” said Anirut, Panya’s translator.
It was a quiet, unspectacular spring day on April 2 for Panya at the Cericola Farms factory, where she was employed as an unregistered worker after having quit her initial job due to alleged mistreatment.
But she quickly realized that something was amiss when Simcoe police surrounded the building and CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) guards allegedly handcuffed and detained her and fellow workers in a bus for eight hours.
Shortly after, those who did not meet immigration requirements were taken to a detention centre in Toronto. In the following two weeks, 40 of the detained migrant workers were deported. Panya violated the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act by working somewhere other than the business indicated in her work permit.
Panya’s translator said she quit her initial job because she was treated poorly and paid less than minimum wage. Due to her illegal status, Panya was detained in jail for almost a month and a half before being bailed out by a group of labour activists.
Her story is echoed by over 100 other migrant workers in Ontario, as the government conducted two more sweeping raids in Leamington, Ont. on May 27 and 28. Others were arrested for reasons such as working two jobs when one salary was insufficient, or for not returning home due to fear of political persecution.
Flor (name changed to protect identity), a migrant worker from Mexico, was at the Lakeside Greenhouse when it was raided on May 27. Although all her papers were in order, nine of her friends and co-workers, all women, were detained. One of the women was pregnant.
“Why are we being treated like criminals?” Flor asked, as translated by her interpreter Tzazna. “We don’t steal, we don’t ask for money as a handout. We only want to work so we are able to survive.”
Some activists such as Ryan Hayes, a member of the No One Is Illegal student network, hope that events such as “Stop the Raids” will raise public awareness over the plight of migrant workers.
“Part of the reality of being without status, is that you’re part of a population that’s made to be invisible,” said Hayes. “It has a lot to do with the interests of certain groups wanting to make a certain class of people exploitable, and wanting to deny those people their rights.”
As Panya recounted her story of getting arrested, it wasn’t long before she choked back sobs and tears ran freely down her cheeks.
After one of the organizers handed Panya a handkerchief, a lady from the crowd who claimed to be a former migrant worker said “This country has gone bad… They give you the handkerchief and nothing else,” as she hugged Panya.
But even in the unfortunate circumstances, others such as Flor showed a hopeful, if disheartened outlook.
“We don’t have our possessions, we don’t have our families…All we have is the hope to go forward.”