Toronto’s Somali community fights for workers’ rights, mental health supports

Toronto’s Somali workers need help fighting for basic rights at work, mental health supports, a living wage and stable, secure, non-precarious employment, say the co-chairs of the Somali Workers Network.

“Many Somali workers don’t know their basic rights. If they have grievances, they don’t know who to talk to. They have HR problems,” said Abdi Hagi Yusuf, co-chair of the Somali Workers Network and secretary-treasurer with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers Toronto local.

“We’re black people, new immigrants in Canada and Muslim. We have three strikes against us, whether we’re workers or stay-at-home moms.”

In 2014, the network of unionized workers concerned with social justice issues formed to build bridges between the labour movement and the Somali community, and to advocate and address social issues, including mental illness and violence.

The Somali network is one of several diversity networks of the Toronto and Region Labour Council, Canada’s oldest and largest labour union with 205,000 members. Other networks reach out to Toronto’s Chinese, Filipino, Tamil and Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.

“Inclusion and equity is about creating space for workers to share realities and needs, paving the way for leadership from within. The dignity of every worker is essential for a healthy and vibrant workplace,” said labour council spokesperson Kiruthiha Kulendiren, adding the networks “recognize that they face obstacles defined by who they are.”

The network’s constituency is both young and older Somali-Canadian workers, as well as Canadian-born and university-educated twentysomethings who struggle to find full-time jobs.

“They are social workers, lawyers, work in banks, in post offices,” said Habiba Adan, a social worker and Somali Workers Network co-chair. “There are also older people who haven’t had a chance to learn about their rights and where to go for help. There are also new refugees who need help.”

Many work two or three part-time jobs. Others work for temp agencies on-call, making it nearly impossible to work another job or attend school.

While Adan is “hopeful and positive” about the Ontario government’s commitment to a $15 minimum wage and other workplace reforms, Yusuf said “it is a good start.”

Without the security of steady, full-time work or a career, young Somalis can fall prey to violence or depression, Yusuf and Adan said.

“They need jobs with enough money to live so when they graduate, they’re not killing each other or being depressed at home,” Yusuf said. “Every single weekend, we go to the hospital to support the family of a young man. He went to university, but he has no job. Every single hour we get phone calls asking, ‘What do I do now? Where do I go?’”

Stigma surrounding mental illness in strong in Somali culture, Adan said.

“People think you’re either sane or you’re insane running around naked. There is no in-between. People don’t think they’re ill,” she said.

Yusuf called mental illness about Somali Canadian youth an “epidemic.”

“Stress and mental illness is high among our children when they can’t get jobs,” he said. “We choose to be Canadian. Our children are Canadian. It’s a Canadian problem.”

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