Originally published in Labor Notes.
In Brampton, Ontario, a small team of young organizers has begun taking on the businesses that exploit them, one case at a time.
The Naujawan Support Network, a collective of international students and migrant workers from Punjab, India, has won back more than $200,000 Canadian ($154,000 U.S.) in stolen wages in just over a year.
“We started a year ago because we observed that there was an increase in suicides among international students,” said Simran Dhunna, one of the founding members of NSN. “Every week we would see GoFundMes raising funds to cover the costs of sending the corpse of a young worker back home. A big reason behind it was the exploitation people faced.”
Over 30 percent of international students in Canada come from India, and while enrollment of Indian students in Canada has increased by nearly 200 percent over the last five years, many are struggling.
International students in Canada are limited by their student visas to parttime work, totaling no more than 20 hours per week. To keep up with the cost of living, they often work “under the table.”
In Brampton, international students commonly work at small businesses such as restaurants and logistics contractors. Conditions are brutal, with workers often paid below minimum wage.
Satinder Kaur Grewal said she was paid $100 Canadian ($77 U.S.) per day for 12-hour workdays at Chat Hut, an Indian restaurant in Brampton. Chat Hut had promised to support her permanent residency application, a tactic many employers of international students use to keep workers in line. After protesting with NSN, Satinder received $16,495 Canadian ($12,705 U.S.) back pay from Chat Hut in February.
NSN runs awareness campaigns to inform international students that they are eligible to file claims for stolen wages with Canada’s Ministry of Labour, even if their employer paid them in cash under the table. But because the claims process is often long and arduous—and results in only partial wage repayment—NSN has taken a hands-on, direct-action approach to recover stolen wages directly from employers.
NSN members say they were inspired by the Indian farmer-laborer protests, when tens of thousands of farmers occupied the borders of Delhi from August 2020 to December 2021 until India’s repressive and exploitative Farm Bills were repealed. The exertion of worker power in India moved Punjabi students to take the wage theft crisis in Canada into their own hands.
“What we have learned from our history back home is that we have to have the courage to fight for ourselves,” said Dhunna. “We emphasize self-organization, independent organization led by workers themselves.”
“We had to organize in a way that wasn’t in the traditional sense,” said Amandeep Singh, an organizer with NSN who won back $3,000 Canadian ($2,310 U.S.) in stolen wages from his former employer at a trucking company.
“Workers are not paid, or are mistreated, and they leave the job. There are no stable jobs for immigrants. We are working in jobs that are non-unionized, that have high turnover.” This has led NSN to emphasize direct action, social media strategy, and public pressure campaigns to win back stolen wages. “We’re reflecting the working conditions of our membership.”
“One of the unique features of NSN is that we directly confront the people who exploit us,” said Dhunna. NSN frequently engages in marches on the boss’s home to deliver demands, a tactic that helped win Singh his wages back.
A typical NSN campaign begins with the hand-delivery of demands to the employer’s home with a one-to-two-week deadline to resolve the issue privately; if they don’t, the protests and social media campaigns begin.
Shame is one of the group’s most powerful tools. NSN’s social media pages often circulate images of business owners with the caption “CHOR ALERT”—“chor” means “thief” in Punjabi. Through such public shaming, NSN has mobilized community members to join protests and boycott businesses until workers receive payment.
Fills a Gap
Dhunna believes NSN’s unconventional approach fills a gap left by unions and advocacy groups in Canada.
“I don’t think that the traditional labor establishment like unions has figured out a way to organize recent immigrants or international students who are moving jobs a lot,” she said. “It’s a sector of society that isn’t prioritized or captured by unions right now.”
NSN’s success has been met with retaliation through defamation lawsuits from bosses. But the group has already won a suit filed against it by Buta Singh, owner of trucking company Flowboy Haulage, after NSN began a protest campaign to win back 194 hours of stolen wages for truck driver Gagandeep Singh.
The Superior Court dismissed the suit, and the Ministry of Labour ordered that Gagandeep Singh be repaid more than $5,000 Canadian ($3,871 U.S.) in wages.