“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, Teferi 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, Teferi formed a “diversity network” for the Toronto and York Region Labor Council.
“It has become our duty,” he said last week.
As a unionized worker, Teferi 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 Teferi.
“Agencies will say, ‘I’ll pay you $10, $8.’ People are working for $8 (an hour).”
Abdalla, 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 Abdalla.
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, Abdalla said.
In the five years they’ve volunteered, Teferi and Abdalla have gone to Scarborough and Etobicoke many times. It’s not always Ethiopians or Eritreans; they help whoever they can.