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Monika Sidhu: International Students And Workers Put Exploitative Employers 'On Notice'
“It was important that we put Buta Singh of Flowboy, as well as all other exploitative employers, on notice. There will be consequences for stealing from workers.”
July 31, 2021 | 6 min. read | Original Reporting
On Saturday, July 24, crowds protested in front of Buta Singh’s home - Singh owns Flowboy Haulage, a trucking and towing company for which Gagandeep Singh Sidhu was a driver. Protestors demanded Singh pay Sidhu the $5,552.82 of pay he is owed for 189 hours of work.
With help from the Naujawan Support Network (NSN), a collective of people that fight for the rights of international students and workers, Sidhu was able to get the community behind him and demand his wages.
This is not the first time that Sidhu approached Singh about his missing wages. In fact, the NSN sent a letter on July 6, nearly two weeks before their action of protesting outside of the employer’s home.
In a statement provided to Baaz, the NSN said the following about last Saturday’s protest:
“This was our first action against the systemic wage theft experienced by young Panjabis,” they said. “It was important that we put Buta Singh of Flowboy, as well as all other exploitative employers, on notice. There will be consequences for stealing from workers.”
When addressing media and crowds on the day of the protest, Sidhu’s cousin, Avtar Singh Dhaliwal spoke in Punjabi saying:
“We are standing in front of this house today in hopes to get his money. When he [Sidhu] calls, they [Flowboy Haulage] don’t answer. We are here to support him. We want to get what is rightfully owed to him. We had to start this group because this has happened to too many drivers.”
Missing wages in Brampton businesses are common. The NSN has been advocating for many other workers as well; they said they have had many people reach out and ask for help with missing wages and exploitation of workers.
“There are scores of truck drivers and other workers who have reached out to us about tens of thousands in wage theft. We will be campaigning against any company that dares to exploit their workers and will see to it that wage thieves cannot roam peacefully on our streets unless they do right by their workers. We ask that people unite with us and support a long-awaited struggle against the mistreatment and abuse of young immigrant workers.”
The NSN had given Buta Singh until Wednesday, July 28 to pay back Sidhu but he never did. As a next step, the group posted a picture of him with details of the missing wages included.
They’ve encouraged their followers to tell them to pay his driver if they see him anywhere and they also plan to distribute posters with his image across Brampton.
More actions and details from the NSN are likely to follow.
Baaz reached out to Flowboy Haulage but they chose to not comment.
This has also not been an isolated incident. The Brampton Guardian recently reported that the Ontario Relations Labour Board was ordering the Brampton restaurant ‘Paranthe Wali Gali’ to pay one of its former cooks $12,391.76 in missing wages for work done between March and September 2019.
Navyug Gill is a historian of modern South Asian and global capitalism and teaches at William Patterson University in New Jersey. He largely examines labour, caste, and agrarian politics. His focus on labour has led him to study the politics of the peasantry in colonial Punjab. His work looks at who produces value, whose work is acknowledged, how labour is tied to caste hierarchy, and how that has led to new forms of exploitation and exclusion in the modern world.
Gill hails originally from Mississauga and he noticed what was happening last Saturday was a monumental move for the community. When speaking to Baaz, he expressed seeing the relation between the events on July 24 with the Farmers Protests.
“Saturday was the most amazing expression of popular anger and initiative on the streets of Brampton in recent memory,” Gill said. “I think it’s taking inspiration from the creativity and determination of the kisan morcha…[One] has to confront the forces that are aligned against them, one has to rise to that challenge.”
Entwined in this situation of unpaid wages and labour abuse is the reality of the Punjabi community inflicting unethical working conditions onto others in the Punjabi community - specifically those that are international students or workers.
Gill explained this as many people getting caught up in the internal economy that exists in a place like Brampton where there is such a saturated presence of not only South Asians but specifically Punjabi people. Within this economy, the newer migrants are vulnerable to exploitation.
“Migrants who arrived earlier have set up various kinds of businesses, from trucking and construction to restaurants and grocery stores. Those who have come later feel a degree of familiarity, and thereby seek work in those industries,” he said.
He added that within this internal economy, there are people who will find ways to maximize their own profits by taking advantage of those who are in vulnerable positions such as these new migrants, documented or undocumented, and students. The assumption is that most of these workers would stay quiet out of fear.
“Like all businesses, owners have an incentive to maximize profit, which leads them to cut corners, reduce costs and whatever else to fill their own pockets. And so they prey upon their own people by withholding or paying less in wages, charging more for rent, threatening and cajoling workers, or not following proper safety standards.”
This is something the NSN knows as well and outlined to Baaz:
“Employers of all stripes, including and especially Panjabis, take advantage of young workers new to the country because they know that we need to secure immigration status and are therefore vulnerable. The legal system does not work in our favour, and many employers know this. Labour court claims can take up to 2 years to process. Many truck companies who’ve stolen wages often declare bankruptcy or change their names, therefore evading government orders to pay wages. How can we be expected to wait 2 years to *potentially* be paid thousands in wages when we have to also pay for rent, groceries, and tuition?”
“The bizarre thing is that some of the people who support the kisan morcha in India yet rip off their own people here are actually upset when those same workers engage in parallel tactics like dharnas to fight for what is rightfully theirs. You can’t have it both ways,” Gill said.
According to him, there is a “thread of defiance” that connects labour protests here with the Farmers’ Protest in India.
When the story reached mainstream media, some community members recommended that Sidhu take the legal route instead. Gill said that most employers mockingly tell their employees to go through the legal route as they know the burden of proof and evidence is difficult to pursue as well.
“They [business owners] know exactly how to manipulate the system,” Gill said.
He said he thinks that the NSN is aware of the difficulty of pursuing the legal barriers.
“They have circumvented those ineffective bureaucratic methods, and have taken their case directly to the public. And [they have] done it in a way that I think resonates deeply in the Punjabi and wider South Asian community.”
He said the practice of naming and shaming corrupt figures is a time-honoured tradition that many South Asians understand.
Gill hopes that this kind of noise being made by the Punjabi community will inspire vulnerable members of other ethnic communities and drive the Punjabi community in a positive direction.
“When people organize themselves, to confront their opponents and solve their own issues, a new world is born. And I think the crooked employers and withheld wages are just the beginning,” Gill said.
Monika Sidhu is a journalist based out of Brampton. She covers topics of arts, culture, and social justice. More recently, she graduated with a Master of Media in Journalism and Communication from Western University. You can find her on Twitter at @MonikaSidhuu.
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