Documenting the lives of Montreal’s undocumented workers

“The Immigrant Workers Centre partnered with photojournalist Tamara Abdul Hadi to put together a multilingual booklet featuring images of undocumented workers, aiming to make visible the often-invisible people in thankless yet essential low-wage jobs.”

It’s impossible to walk around Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood and not notice how culturally diverse it is. East Asian, West Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi restaurants line the stretch of Victoria Avenue that I’m walking on this sunny Sunday afternoon. The scent of curry and spices is palpable in the air, making me hungry.

The densely populated neighbourhood is home to the city’s many new arrivals, among them undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers living with precarity and pending requests to regularize their status.

Standing at the corner of Van Horne and Victoria, across from Plamondon metro, I see wheat-pasted signs on lamp poles advertising private French and English classes, and bilingual workshops helping people negotiate fair rent increases. Money transfer agencies are everywhere. They are the telltale signs of a migrant demographic, of homesick people sending any money they can spare back to their families. Ads for placement agencies recruiting part-time and full-time workers as general labourers, order pickers and forklift drivers are visible in storefront windows.

I’m in Côte-des-Neiges to visit the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC). Founded in 2000 by a small group of Filipino-Canadian union organizers, the centre offers a safe space where vulnerable workers can be informed about their rights and improve their working conditions. The centre routinely intervenes and fights on their behalf, tackling harassment, unpaid wages and workplace accidents.

The human beings behind the numbers

Aiming to make visible the often-invisible people in these thankless yet essential low-wage jobs, the IWC recently partnered with documentary photographer and photojournalist Tamara Abdul Hadi to put together a multilingual booklet featuring images of them. During an informal launch at the centre, a small crowd gathers to listen to the photographer and many of the workers featured in the booklet. Among them, people from Punjab, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, India, Guinea and Pakistan. 

“Through her photos and her portraits, she has really given them a voice and an existence beyond being invisibilized,” says IWC community organizer Mostafa Henaway, while introducing her. 

Invisibility and erasure are often issues plaguing undocumented workers. They don’t officially “exist” here as Canadian citizens, and as a result neither do their struggles, their mistreatment and, often, their rights. 

Only days before, undocumented workers and those who support them camped all night in front of the Refugee Board at the Guy-Favreau Complex in downtown Montreal, demanding a fully inclusive regularization program with no one left behind. 

They held up signs proclaiming, “We are not a crisis, we are in crisis.”

The difficult road to regularization 

Montreal undocumented
Balkar Singh and family. Photos by Tamara Abdul Hadi

The camp for status was part of a pan-Canadian day of action for regularization and for permanent residence for all migrants, organized by the Migrant Rights Network. The organization aims to raise awareness of the difficulties migrants often face and the unfair work conditions that many experience, while applying pressure to the federal government to make them permanent. 

Despite the sensationalistic headlines and angst Roxham Road has generated in the last few years, most undocumented migrants in Canada don’t sneak in through irregular crossings. They become undocumented by falling out of status when they cannot meet eligibility criteria for existing immigration programs after lawfully entering Canada on temporary work or study permits and having overstayed their authorized period of stay. 

Those in low-paying jobs often have no access to permanent residency, so eventually they’re forced to either leave or stay in the country undocumented. Many come hoping to stay, but the path to regularization is often fraught with delays and multiple obstacles that make becoming a permanent citizen a difficult, sometimes impossible, dream. There are no accurate numbers for undocumented migrants in Canada. Estimates from credible sources assess it could total 500,000 people.

Newcomers arriving in Canada looking for a new life often face racism and discrimination as well as unsafe and underpaid work. Food, rent and other necessities are hard to come by with low-skill, low-paying jobs, and their precarious status often creates an underclass of exploited newcomers trapped in limbo for years, unable to better their situation or see their families abroad. The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, an advocacy organization for migrant workers, refers to the status quo as “a revolving-door immigration system through which people are brought in, abused, exploited and tossed out.”

“Their arrival is the start of their struggles”

According to Abdul Hadi, collaborating with the IWC was important to her because of how hard they work to defend people’s rights. 

“We often assume that when people lose their homes and arrive here, things will immediately be better for them,” she says. “But often it’s the opposite. Sometimes it’s just the start of their struggles.” 

Abdul Hadi, whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Wall Street Journal, was born to Iraqi parents in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and raised in Montreal. She began her photography career working at Reuters News Agency as a photojournalist and photo editor and is a founding member of Rawiya Collective, a photography co-operative of female photographers in the Middle East, with most of her projects focused on social injustice and deconstructing stereotypes.

One of those stereotypes is that migrant workers exploit the system, instead of the other way around. Stories about temporary migrant workers unscrupulously being taken advantage of by local employers are, sadly, quite common. Workers are often bound by their contracts to one employer, facilitating abuse. And while legislation technically exists to protect migrant rights, the government often fails to provide the resources to prevent exploitation. A recent article detailing how the Quebec tribunal denied compensation to the family of a Guatemalan migrant worker who was crushed to death trying to repair a flat tire on his employer’s car was instrumental in raising much-needed awareness.

As Quebec’s labour needs continue to increase while the provincial government remains reticent to increase permanent immigration, the number of temporary migrant workers in Quebec has more than doubled in the past five years. Unsurprisingly, the number of temporary foreign workers injured on the job in Quebec has more than doubled in the past two years, as the province increasingly relies on them to fill labour shortages. And those numbers won’t go down. Quebec employers intend to triple the number of migrant workers this year. That means that without more government oversight, injuries and exploitation are destined to increase, as well.

Regularizing undocumented workers benefits everyone

Those fighting for the regularization of undocumented workers argue that allowing people who are already living here and working here to become permanent would not only improve their lives and overall prospects, but also unlock their earning and spending potential. Regularization would allow people existing in limbo to better their working conditions, their salaries, their education and, ultimately, their contributions by paying more sales taxes, property taxes and income taxes. People who earn more pay back into the system more. 

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the faceless people responsible for picking our fruits and vegetables across Quebec farms, working assembly lines in manufacturing and processing plants, delivering our food or dropping off Amazon packages. A 2019 Montreal Gazette article on a survey carried out by the IWC revealed that “more than 15,600 workers lift boxes and drive forklifts in warehouses in the Montreal metropolitan region. Up to 80% are immigrants, many of them hailing from African nations seeking a better life in Canada.” It also revealed that many of these workers were exploited and mistreated. 

“A lot of the people who I spent time with and photographed over a roughly eight-month period have struggled since they arrived here and are still struggling,” Abdul Hadi says. “Most of their statuses are still precarious. But they work tirelessly, and they give back to the community.”

Waiting for the other shoe to drop

The workers featured in Abdul Hadi’s book say their expectations and experiences have often not aligned.

“The people working many of these jobs don’t know their rights,” says Gaurav Sharma, who arrived in Canada from Northern India in 2019. Sharma, who says community organizing and theatre are his passions, worked warehouse and Uber Eats jobs at first, but now works at the centre, which he considers a lucky break. 

“I’ve met people who are truly suffering here,” he says, “people who want to die.” He says that instability and precariousness create incredible amounts of distress. 

Ibrahim Alsahary was a journalist back home in Egypt. He left in 2017 with his daughter after being jailed repeatedly because of his social activism. 

“I didn’t want to go back to prison,” he says. While working at Montreal’s Amazon warehouse, Alsahary tried to improve workers’ conditions there and was fired. 

Henaway says their precarious status often doesn’t allow them to live with the same rights and dignity others enjoy. “They’re constantly waiting for their deportation, living in fear of losing their status, working multiple jobs and not being able to access their rights. They’re always told that they should be thankful and grateful for what they have when in fact things are quite hard for them.”

Henaway points out that every single person featured in the booklet was an essential worker during the pandemic. 

Dheeraj, who emigrated from India in 2018 with his wife and young daughter (and how has a son as well), worked in Telecom back home, but now drives a truck six days a week to put food on the table. 

“We had to start from scratch,” he says. He says he worries about his claim being rejected, knowing how difficult it would be for his young children, who are growing up here and no longer know any other home, to return to a country with no real prospects for them. 

“They speak French, they speak English, they go to school here, all they know is Quebec culture at this point.”

He says that people don’t understand how stressful delayed application claims can be and how much is riding on them. “Many refugees are dealing with deep depression because they live here all alone and haven’t seen their families in years. Some whose claims are rejected often contemplate suicide,” he says, “but media doesn’t often report on that.” 

“Some are living such miserable lives,” interjects Sharma. “These people are victims, not criminals.”

Mamadou Konaté came to Montreal from Côte d’Ivoire on humanitarian appeal. He’s worked as a truck driver, a cleaner and a CHSLD worker at the height of the COVID pandemic. 

“Why would I have left my home if I didn’t have to?” he asks. “To come somewhere where I don’t know anyone? In my experience, Quebecers and Canadians are kind and welcoming, but I don’t think most people here understand the reality we experience and how it affects the children of undocumented parents. If they truly knew, I think they would support us more.”

Konaté is eager to be heard. He points out how much those with temporary status contribute without getting much in return. 

“I know someone who worked here 38 years and was never regularized and was eventually deported,” he says. “Once you remove 38 years from someone’s working life, what’s left? All the money that he contributed [every individual who can legally work in Canada, including temporary foreign workers, is required to pay provincial and federal taxes] and none of that money will go towards paying for a pension to support him in his old age. It’s unfair. They deny permanency, yet every year they increase the number of temporary worker permits. We pay taxes and contribute here, but we don’t enjoy the same social benefits. I sometimes feel like the government allows us here for a few years, benefits from our labour and then deports us.”

Intimate glimpses of who they are 

Mamadou Konaté

The images snapped of the men and women are casual, intimate, dignified. A brief description of who they are accompanies the pictures.

“I photographed 18 individuals over the course of 8 months,” says Abdul Hadi. “As I was wrapping up the series, I decided to create something tangible, something that would last, and tell their stories longer than an exhibition or event would.”

She says she wanted to create something she could share with the people she photographed, as a way of showing gratitude for the time they allowed her into their lives.

“For me, this project was very important, very special,” she says. “The people who let me enter their homes, what is essentially their only safe space, and photograph them, I felt like it was a very gentle exchange. They were very welcoming, they kept wanting to feed me. I also learned so much. I think many people don’t know that people with precarious status pay taxes.”

Abdul Hadi says she tried to keep the image-making as collaborative as she could, photographing them in their homes, with their belongings. She also involved them in the final editing of the book, from the photos she used to the text excerpts from their interviews.

“The book launch brought us all together and created a space where they could talk candidly about their experiences here in Montreal and amplify their voices,” she says. “It was moving for me to be able to hold that space with them and I hope this experience was as enriching and rewarding for them as it was for me. Because for me it was a privilege, a gift.” 

“We often have these narratives about our ‘capacity’ to welcome more people here,” says Henaway, “but the reality is that a lot of precarious migrant workers who are already here contribute more than what they, in fact, receive from the Canadian government.”

Temporary farm workers are a good example, according to him. “It’s very hard to receive unemployment insurance, even though they must pay into it,” he says. 

“People pay into a lot of services they simply can’t access. Many people pay provincial taxes but can’t access any of the programs through Québec Emplois until they’re permanent residents. The ‘capacity’ question is often a manufactured crisis.” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.