When Pragosh Antonipillai was young, he and his cousins worked well over 40 hours a week at Tim Hortons.
They didn’t get overtime, and didn’t ask. They worked 12 or 24 hours at a stretch when their downtown Toronto stores were short-handed.
“We would sleep on sugar bags in the back because that’s what we thought it means to be a good worker,” Antonipillai recalls. For a first-generation Tamil-Canadian, this was normal, even expected, he says.
Antonipillai’s parents were proud; at 15 and 16 he was making more than his dad as a Canadian Tire cashier. But working 30 hours a week while in high school tired him out.
“People would assume I’m just this terrible student,” says Antonipillai, who now volunteers with Tamil employees in Greater Toronto, including youth going through what he once did.
His small group is a “diversity network” for the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, which also has volunteers from the Filipino, Chinese, Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.
The networks formed because unions weren’t getting into ethnic communities, and people from these ethnicities could sidestep communication barriers and suspicions, says Ram Selvarajah, a member of the Tamil network.
Concerns about New Canadians working in Toronto are well-founded: in a 2013 survey 20 per cent of Mandarin-speaking recent immigrants here weren’t paid minimum wage, and only half received paid public holidays.
“The myth immigrants are brought up to believe is you work 80 hours,” says Selvarajah, adding young Tamils arriving here in the 1990s felt extra pressure to work.
There were Tamil gangs in Toronto then, Selvarajah says, so parents thought, “you were working or you were in trouble.”
Antonipillai and Selvarajah say Toronto employers still “pit” recent immigrants who won’t insist on their rights against other Canadians.
They know immigrant women, in particular, “have less resources to fight back,” adds Antonipillai, who argues 90 per cent Toronto’s kitchen staff are Tamil for the same reason.
Selvarajah meets seniors working in Tamil stores for $5 an hour, under the table, looking on their employers as friends. He tells them standing up for yourself, “isn’t a betrayal, it’s actually the right thing to do.”