Radio — Organizing workers in Chinese grocery stores in Toronto

Justin Kong is the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, and the lead organizer in their Chinese Grocery Store Worker Project. Scott Neigh interviews him about organizing with workers in Chinese grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses in the community. In particular, given the upsurge in anti-Chinese racism and the importance of grocery workers in the context of COVID-19, we talk about doing this work during the current pandemic.

Myths of unrestricted meritocracy notwithstanding, the kinds of opportunities we have to engage in paid work and to make lives for ourselves tend to correlate quite strongly with who we are. It is certainly not absolute, but rather testifies to the powerful and persistent relevance of the barriers that different groups face – barriers organized into people’s lives in relation to their experiences of gender, class, migration, citizenship, racial background, disability, sexuality, and more.

These barriers are real, lived, and felt every day. It’s the sexual harassment. It’s getting fewer job interviews because you have this type of name rather than that type of name. It’s your qualifications not being recognized because you got them in another country. It’s not having the money to pursue education or some other sort of opportunity. It’s having a work permit that ties you to a single employer, or immigration rules that limit your ability to speak out and to access social supports. It’s being streamed into non-academic courses because of racial stereotypes. It’s all of these things and countless more, in an overall context that depends on having signficant numbers of people who work in precarious, low-wage, unpleasant, and often unsafe jobs.

In many racialized immigrant communities in Canada, including those with roots in China, racism and exclusion from other sorts of opportunities tends to encourage the formation of certain kinds of small businesses in which the owners and workers, and in some instances the main customer base, share an ethnic background. Barriers related to things like language, migration and citizenship, and racism, as well as barriers to accessing education and training, mean that particularly for working-class people in these communities, working in these kinds of businesses can be among the more accessible options available to them to earn a living. But low pay, precarious employment, lousy conditions, and mistreatment by employers are just as likely in what you might call the “ethnic economy” as they are in similar kinds of workplaces in the mainstream economy. And the barriers that the people working in, say, Chinese grocery stores and restaurants can face in asserting their rights and dignity can be even greater than those faced by other precarious workers, precisely because of things like how the migration system gets weaponized against them, the structural barriers they face to finding other jobs, and so on.

Kong and others involved in the CCNC had been hearing anecdotally from workers about some of these problems, and a few years ago they decided they needed to do something. The goal of the Chinese Grocery Store Worker Project is to learn more about the conditions that these workers face, to build relationships with them, and to support them in asserting their rights and in building collective power. While they certainly support formal unionization, most of what they do involves less formal kinds of organizing. This includes working to address small, winnable demands in specific workplaces. It includes building up mutual aid networks and sources of support in the community and among workers. And all of this is done with an eye towards larger scale organization and mobilization, and the building of broader worker power, in the longer term.

Now, of course, is a particularly challenging moment. As word of COVID-19 first began to circulate, racist responses resulted in many Chinese and other Asian-owned businesses losing customers, and therefore laying off workers. Now that the pandemic has truly begun to hit, workers in Chinese grocery stores, like all grocery workers, are on the frontlines, so they are afraid of infection and they lack the social and employment supports they would need to be able to truly protect themselves. And given the unprecedented economic downturn that is only beginning to manifest, there is fear of much worse job loss ahead.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Ralph Chang / Pexels

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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