Working as part of an international worker solidarity network Sonia Singh considers herself a ‘supportive ally’. But it was her volunteer work and meetings with migrant agricultural workers from Mexico that really made her feel connected.
Singh is currently a researcher with the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network, a network of organizations and individuals that promotes solidarity between Canadian labour, women’s and social movement groups and Mexican, Central American and Asian counterparts organizing to raise standards and improve conditions in maquiladora and export processing zones.
She brings significant experience with her. As a student at the University of Toronto (UofT) Singh joined the Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) ‘No Sweat’ campaign to press the institution to adopt a code of conduct for manufacturers of products bearing the UofT name. Much of the apparel Singh discovered was produced in developing countries, especially in free trade zones where workers are not only poorly paid but toil under hazardous working conditions.
The UofT ‘No Sweat’ campaign kicked into high gear in the spring of 1999 after a concerted 18-month effort when Singh and 19 others staged a 10-day sit-in at the office of then-University of Toronto president, Robert Pritchard. In May 1999, the UofT, the first in Canada, adopted a code ensuring that apparel bearing the university’s name or insignia will be manufactured according to humane labour and health and safety standards. Since then seven other universities have adopted ‘No Sweat’ policies.
Through a friend, Singh began volunteering last year with the Global Justice CareVan
project. Coordinated through the United Food and Commerical Workers in conjunction with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Canadian office of the United Steelworkers of America, CareVan
offers legal, social and moral support to thousands of migrant agricultural workers who work on Ontario farms each year. Through informal meetings Singh and other volunteers began documenting their living and working conditions. “It struck me that their reality paralleled that of maquiladora workers in Mexico. It made me question my own assumptions since I saw migrant workers being treated differently than Canadian workers. All workers,” she says, “deserve a living wage and safe and dignified working conditions.”
This past spring Singh and 11 other Spanish-speaking activists participated in a unique instructor training session sponsored by the CLC and the Workers Health and Safety Centre. Draft curriculum from the session formed the basis for a farm workers health and safety manual recently completed by staff at the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers in Toronto.
Stan Raper is CLC Global Justice CareVan
Coordinator. “Sonia is leading the way with her specific interest in developing resources for women agricultural workers, especially with regard to pesticide exposure. As more women migrant workers enter Canada each year Sonia’s contribution is invaluable.”
Many weekends you will still find Singh in Leamington where she volunteers at the Migrant Agricultural Workers Support Centre, CareVan’s
most recent initiative. With typical modesty she says it’s the migrant workers and others toiling in free trade zones who are the real activists. “People are organizing everywhere. I’m just happy to find ways to be supportive and help make information accessible to them,” she says. “We’re just providing the tools for others to affect change.”