Toronto’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities fight for rights at work

Toronto’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities fight for rights at work

Ethiopian native Teferi Zemene (left) and Eritrean-born Abdalla Idris, at the Toronto and York Region Labour Council on Thursday, July 13, are among the volunteers that work with their respective Canadian immigrant communities through the organization. – Staff/Metroland

“They are not part of the system. They don’t vote,” Teferi Zemene says about members of Toronto’s Ethiopian community he volunteers to help.

( — A licensed plumber turned union organizer, Zemene talks to people he says don’t know their rights at work, or about unions, asking them to take the fight into their own hands.

Along with Abdalla Idris, who speaks to the city’s Eritreans, Zemene formed a “diversity network” for the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.

“It has become our duty,” he said last week.

As a unionized worker, Zemene has it better than some others in the Ethiopian community.

Many toil for temp agencies, waiting by the phone to hear if they get a shift, he said. “They have no rights at all. If they’re injured, they’re gone.”

Underground work is illegal, but happening in Toronto. People employ newcomers for less than Ontario’s minimum wage, and don’t pay taxes, said Zemene.

“Agencies will say, ‘I’ll pay you $10, $8.’ People are working for $8 (an hour).”

Idris, a singer in Eritrea, came here in 1991.

Once, on a job in Vaughan, he decided his employer wasn’t being fair to him. He tried to unionize the factory.

He now works at Toronto’s Chelsea Hotel, and helps people stuck doing part-time and agency work. “I don’t want them to go through what I’ve gone through.”

Toronto’s Eritreans do any jobs they can at factories and restaurants. Some well-educated people drive taxis, said Idris.

Newcomers from his East African country don’t know who to speak to about workplace issues, he added. “We give them this chance not to get lost.”

Without the security of a steady job, many can “go easily to this different way,” which includes drugs and suicide, Idris said.

In the five years they’ve volunteered, Zemene and Idris have gone to Scarborough and Etobicoke many times. It’s not always Ethiopians or Eritreans; they help whoever they can.

Zemene organized a strike this year by York University food servers who wanted $15 an hour, and got it.

“It’s not only life-changing for them, it will keep the living standard of the country high.”

Ethiopians came to Canada for a better life, but many of their children are doing minimum wage jobs. “As parents, we have a  responsibility to make life better for the next generation,” Zemene said.

Both men are excited about the Ontario Liberal government’s decision, following a campaign by organized labour and other supporters, to pledge a $15 minimum wage and other workplace reforms.

“We have to push to make it happen,” said Idris. “This is not only about our community, this is the right of humanity.”

Other diversity networks reach out to Toronto’s Chinese, Somali and other communities. At first, Zemene wasn’t sold on that idea.

“I once thought, why divide the communities? Have one (network), fight together.”

But a single network didn’t work. This does.

“I speak the language, I know the culture. I can reach out,” said Zemene. “We know by working together, you can be productive, you can build.”