Montreal·Point of View

Undocumented workers explain how the curfew has plunged them into greater precarity

The Quebec government needs to address the terrible conundrum the curfew has created for the many thousands of workers in her situation who want to work: either risk arrest and deportation or stay at home with no social security net.

Workers fear arrest if stopped by police, but many have no other option

Montreal police are stopping people out after curfew to check if they are essential workers. For those workers who are undocumented, they live in fear of being stopped. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A police car pulls alongside the van as it exits the highway. Inside, the silence is tense. "Odette" clenches her fist and prays. As the police pull ahead and then move in another direction, she and her co-workers start to breathe again.

Odette has good reason to be afraid.

It is after curfew. Although she has a letter from her employer verifying that she is working nights, if the police ask to see it, they may realize that there is an arrest warrant in her name. The warrant was issued after she failed to show up for deportation about a year ago.

Odette guesses that most of her co-workers are in the same situation. One of them was lucky. The police did stop his van after curfew and proceeded to ask everyone in the car where they worked. But then, they let them go.

Others have simply quit their jobs — the risk is too great. But Odette can't quit. If she does, who will pay her rent? How will she eat? Who will send money back to Africa so her son can continue his education? She is in her 50s and the kinds of jobs available to someone with her status, denied access to a work permit, are not easy to find. Since the pandemic began, it has been doubly difficult to find work.

So, Odette has decided to take the risk to continue working, hoping that she will be lucky like her colleague. She continues, even though the work is dehumanizing.

"You work at the pace of the machine and it moves very fast; you become like a robot," she says. There is no room for mistakes. The conditions are terrible. She says her muscles ache, but the breaks are a scarce 12 minutes.

Her wages are barely enough to cover her bills, let alone send support to her family. Society relies on the work she does, but no one would choose it if there were any other options.

Only migrants work there. She doesn't mince her words: "It's exploitation; it's slavery."

Deepening sense of hopelessness

"Sandrine" counts herself lucky because she was able to move to day shifts when two daytime co-workers got COVID-19. Before that, the Montrealer of many years worked the evening shift and was terrified going home every night. She explains that some night workers quit, just like at Odette's factory. Others now arrive hours earlier than their shift begins. That way, they don't have to take the risk of being out after curfew. But it's not much of a life.

Sandrine hopes that she can stay on days. She explains that the company fired a lot of employees after the first wave and there is no guarantee that the two workers sent home with COVID will be able to return. There is no job security for undocumented workers, even for workers who are called essential because they work in industries permitted to stay open.

The luxury products Sandrine's factory prepares for the market don't seem particularly essential, except to the wealth of the managers and owners, but she is not complaining. If she were sent home, she would have no way of supporting herself because, with her status, she is not eligible for any government relief programs, EI or social assistance.

She says that the stress of her situation makes her prefer mind-numbing work to staying at home. At home, this university-educated professional from West Africa is alone with her despair and constant anxiety, wondering when and how her difficult life as an undocumented worker will end.

The curfew has only deepened her sense of hopelessness, of being in a trap she can't escape. Even if she has to return to evening shifts, she will continue working, "despite the fear in my belly."

If the curfew is extended, however, she may consider quitting, especially if the police start to ask people for ID as she heard it rumoured they soon would.

She has no ID, just a letter from her workplace. Nor would an ID help her: there is an arrest warrant out for her because she refused to collaborate with her deportation, just like Odette and thousands of others, and the last thing she wants is to tell the police her name.

Sandrine thinks that the police should be instructed not to ask for ID; they should only ask for letters from employers.

She also wants to remind Quebec that she too is a Quebecer: she lives here, she works here: "No one can tell me I am not a Quebecer," she says.

The Quebec government needs to address the terrible conundrum the curfew has created for the many thousands of workers in her situation who want to work: either risk arrest and deportation or stay at home with no social security net.

She asks Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to look south, as President Joe Biden moves toward making the lives of millions of migrant workers more secure. There may be fewer people with precarious status in Canada, but people are being crushed by the situation, she says, and it is absolutely possible to find a way of ending their precarity.

For Odette, the solution is nothing short of a regularization program for all migrants with precarious status, starting with undocumented migrants like herself.

"We are here. We should live in dignity, like everyone. But we are not free," she says.

Solidarity Across Borders is holding a socially distanced dance protest on Saturday at noon outside Complexe Guy-Favreau to demand status and dignity for all undocumented people.

Editor's note: The names of the workers have been changed in this story due their risk of deportation.

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Mary Foster is a community organizer involved in the migrant justice network Solidarity Across Borders. Solidarity Across Borders brings together migrants and supporters to fight against deportations and detentions and for status for all, and to transform Montreal into a city based on solidarity rather than racist exploitation.