“Do whatever you want, run wherever you want to, you aren’t getting your wages.”
The Brampton-based trucking company owner who said these words to his former truck driver would later regret them.
Rather than run, the driver and several other recently immigrated workers from Panjab, India got organized. They executed a series of direct actions to confront the owner, expose his actions to the Brampton community, and force him to pay over $5,000 in stolen wages. They did all this under the weight of a $250,000 defamation lawsuit filed by the owner’s Bay Street lawyers. Despite the risks, the workers held strong: they secured the wages, defeated the lawsuit, and set the tone for the struggles yet to come.
These workers in Brampton were the first members of a new organization called Naujawan [Youth] Support Network (NSN). They created NSN in June 2021 to stop their exploitation at the hands of employers as well as landlords, immigration consultants, and the government. They discovered early on that the forces exploiting them were too diverse, entrenched, and powerful to challenge alone or through established legal or political channels. So they turned to one another, drawing on the rich tradition of sovereignty and resistance from their homeland, and chose to walk the path of struggle.
NSN’s guiding philosophy comes from the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred text and eternal Guru of the Sikh religion to which most NSN members belong: "ਆਪਣ ਹਥੀ ਆਪਣਾ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਕਾਜੁ ਸਵਾਰੀਐ," meaning “with our own hands, let us resolve our own affairs.” With their own hands, NSN members have taken action against dozens of employers and won back over $250,000 in stolen wages in their first year of organizing. As they embark on year two, 12 members reflect on what led them to the struggle, their lessons and inspirations, and their hopes for the future. Their reflections have been translated from Panjabi into English.
Simranjeet joined NSN after having $6,331.81 in wages stolen while working as a dispatcher for a trucking company in Brampton. The campaign to recover her wages is slated to begin soon.
Joining the struggle: Everyone knows that we are all forced out of necessity to leave our families, whether it’s due to unemployment or not seeing a future for ourselves back home. When we migrate to Canada, we work with integrity and break our bodies in the process. But when our earnings are withheld, you can’t really explain to someone how much that hurts. We break down from all angles – mentally, emotionally, physically. I think my conscience was still alive; that’s why I felt it appropriate to come forward for my rights.
Lessons: From this struggle, I have learned about what my rights are, like how it is actually legal to be paid in cash and how employers cannot legally threaten your immigration [status] when you demand your wages. It is also true that we have to fight for our rights ourselves; we cannot fight by resting on the shoulders of another person.
Challenges: My cousin and I were suffering greatly when our wages were stolen – we didn’t even have the money to pay for rent or groceries. We didn’t want to stress out our families back home by telling them what we faced, because they believed that no one could exploit others like this in Canada. From all this, we have learned that wherever we work, if employers exploit us we should tell them that we know our rights very well.
Futures: I believe that in the coming period everyone will know NSN’s name, and people in other regions will organize with us. Wherever someone experiences exploitation, NSN will stand with them.
Qualities to cultivate: It’s important that we have ਅਣਖ (self-respect) because it allows us to challenge the wrongs we face. We should also have honest hearts because we fight on the basis of truth. We should have patience because sometimes we may need to fight for a prolonged period of time. There may be many barriers but we have to stay on the battlefield and face them. Victory always belongs to right and truth in the end.
Sources of strength: I was born and raised in Panjab, where from the beginning we have learned to fight for our rights through struggle and to defend others’ rights. After our Gurus, I found a lot of motivation from our [Sikh] nation’s leaders and their struggle to fight for everyone’s rights – namely Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. I always remember one of his remarks: “I don’t fear for a physical death, but when my conscience dies, that is a real death.”
Parminder has been organizing with four other long-haul truck drivers who are altogether owed nearly $36,000 in wages. To date they have recovered $30,000 from their employer through negotiations, which are ongoing. If they are not paid the remainder, they will launch a campaign.
Joining the struggle: NSN was active for some time before I joined in November 2021. I got motivated when I saw others who couldn’t see any other way of fighting for their rights, and they won. This is a new method of struggle that migrated with us from Panjab. But protest is not actually new to us; our elders in Panjab have been doing this for a long time. It’s something we’ve extracted from our background.
Lessons: When I was a child, I read a story about pigeons. One pigeon gets stuck in a trap. Alone, he cannot do anything to get out. But when many pigeons all come together and try to get him out, they manage to lift the trap collectively and free him. From this, we learn that when we stay united and together, nothing is difficult for us.
Challenges: We are new to this country but the people we work for have been here for much longer and know the system well. They know how to intimidate us legally and openly threaten us. When we worked for them, they made us work in ways that we know are wrong. We faced these challenges when we immigrated here, and it’s because of these challenges that we’ve learned about our rights. We confront these challenges through unity: a lone branch will break easily, but if it becomes a bundle of branches it will not break. An example of this is when wage thief Sukhdeep Hunjan disrupted our rally, but when he saw the crowd, he ran away.
Futures: I see a future where [...] our systems are designed [to defend] those who get exploited. This system can include a portal by the government where cases [of workers’ wage complaints] can be processed faster, unlike now, where workers have to wait for years [after filing them]. We need a future where if a worker has a problem, it can be resolved right away and the employer who has stolen wages is the one who has to run, rather than the worker who is demanding their rights.
Qualities to cultivate: Two types of people join this movement: those who have faced exploitation and those who want to stand with their loved ones who were exploited. Anyone who wants to join NSN should develop self-confidence – confidence in themselves, confidence to fight for their rights. We’re not saying go out and attack someone. But if someone disrespects you, you should not clasp your hands together and bow down. We are not followers of Gandhi, we belong to the family of Bhagat Singh. We are not from the family of Gandhi, where someone slaps one cheek and we offer our other cheek to them. If someone intimidates you, there’s no need to fear. So you need to build self-confidence and know how to fight for your rights.
Sources of strength: We first bow down to our Gurus. If you wake up in the morning and bow your head down to Guru Gobind Singh Ji, you will have strength for the rest of the day. So stay connected with your Gurus, respect your elders, and don’t forget the past.
Satinder Kaur Grewal
Satinder worked at a restaurant called Chat Hut in 2020. The employer paid Satinder less than the minimum wage, did not pay her overtime, did not give her proper breaks, and broke its promise to support her application for permanent residence. On December 4, 2021, Satinder led a powerful protest in front of the Brampton restaurant. The pressure created by the campaign led the employer to agree to pay Satinder $16,495 in stolen wages.
Joining the struggle: Everyone knows that wage theft is bound to happen here. Whenever we talk to our friends, someone says “my employer didn’t pay me” or “he kept my wages.” One day I was randomly checking my social media and came across NSN’s videos. I liked the videos and thought to myself, “How can people take time out of their busy schedules to stand with someone else, especially in Canada where everyone is hustling?” My heart found a lot of comfort seeing this, so I contacted NSN. I initially thought that perhaps nothing will come of it and that I’ll join the group as a volunteer. At least what happened to me shouldn’t happen to someone else. But when we spoke about my case and started the campaign, I learned how I could fight back. When we fought back together, we won.
Lessons: If you are ready to fight, then people will stand with you and support you. If you are truthful and fighting for the truth, others stand with you and the result is positive. Unity and strength matter a lot; without them, it’s difficult to fight back.
Challenges: There are lots of challenges, because during my campaign everyone told me not to fight. People told me they’ll deport me or that this is a waste of time. My response to them was that whether or not I get my wages, I will fight so that others who work at Chat Hut now or will work there in the future will learn of how the owners exploit us. In terms of other campaigns, there are challenges like defamation lawsuits, police [who] threaten us at protests, etc. But there’s no need to fear these challenges, because they will intimidate us only as much as we let them.
Futures: I envision a future where everyone knows about their rights, anyone who is exploited is capable of fighting for themselves, and we have so many members in our movement that if there is a call to action everyone is ready to show up without question. If everyone unites and fights now, then in the coming period employers will think 100 times over before deciding to steal their workers’ wages.
Qualities to cultivate: You should have faith in yourself. It shouldn’t be that if someone says something to shake you up, that you fall back and leave the struggle. Because if you don’t fight for your own rights and raise your voice now, then they will continue subjugating and exploiting us. It’s also very important to have patience, to have a proper way of making decisions, to not rush into things. Take everyone’s thoughts and advice into consideration, because everyone has different experiences to draw from.
Sources of strength: My role model is my mom. I have witnessed her endure so much in her life and tolerate every single thing through thick and thin. She never ran away from anything and has confronted every circumstance she experienced. When I told her about my case, she motivated me to fight even though she knew that deportation was a possibility. She gave me courage by saying that we will face whatever comes and that I should fight because I am saying the truth.
Gurmukhjeet is one of four truck drivers who campaigned against Cargo County to demand tens of thousands of dollars in wages. They protested in front of the employers’ home in Brampton on October 2, 2021, and are now defending against a $17 million defamation lawsuit.
Joining the struggle: I first got motivated to take action after I saw the protest in front of Buta Singh’s home. This happened while I was playing volleyball in the park. Employers hadn’t been criticized in this way before in Brampton or Canada. People used to say, “well, now they’ve stolen their wages, nothing you can do now” or “file a claim in labour court.” These methods don’t do much; they don’t make an employer feel [compelled to pay]. What I liked in our work is that the people who exploit us are exposed to society. Their real faces should be revealed. This was what first motivated me – that if we expose them, more of us will be saved from being exploited and employers will tread carefully. Otherwise there will be no one to stop them, as they’re not afraid of the law.
Challenges: The biggest challenge in this struggle was the defamation lawsuits. Otherwise, the difficulties were there for us from the beginning, since we didn’t get paid our wages. A worker loses hope, thinking the most they can do is file a labour claim and keep waiting. But we expose [these employers].
Futures: I want a future where there isn’t even a need for such an organization like NSN, a future where we transform society so much that there wouldn’t even be a need to say the words “you have stolen wages, and you need to pay them.” Rights should be accessible by default, which sounds impossible and difficult today. We dream of our organization getting larger, because wage thieves won’t stop and in a capitalist society people pay more attention to making money. There are also some people who move more toward business. If they open a restaurant or a trucking company, those people who were once victims [of exploitation] themselves make victims of others once they become business owners. This is the game of profit. I want our organization to be so big that we have the power and reach to directly shape lawmaking and enforcement. [...] We cannot work at the scope of state institutions [like the Ministry of Labour] right now. […] I want for us to one day change the laws.
Qualities to cultivate: First of all, one should develop leadership qualities – at the very least, being a leader for themselves. If they can’t vocalize their position or have to speak through someone else, then they will not be capable of being in the struggle. One should raise their voice if they face exploitation. They should do so directly in front of the person doing the exploiting. Second, one should build solidarity with others. If you fight individually for yourself alone, it’s fine […] but to stand up for one another, to hold another’s pain in their heart – this is very important. And to be open-minded and have faith in numbers and in teamwork. Only then can we make this movement bigger and bring the working class and broader society into it.
Sources of strength: First, our struggle started because the farmers’ protests entered our hearts [one year ago]. Second, our religion, Sikhi, mandates us to fight for our rights. For me, my greatest role model is Sant Jarnail Singh [Bhindranwale], who said we should never ever let our rights go and that one who violates another’s rights is as much a sinner as one who does not fight for their rights. These thoughts are at the forefront of my mind. From the beginning, I have thought that even if someone has had five rupees stolen from them, we are fighting for that five too, no matter the cost.
Sheeraz and Shazia Siddiqui
Sheeraz is owed $9,604 in wages from a trucking company in Milton, Ontario. He and his wife, Shazia, have been strung along by their employer and the federal labour court for a year. Their campaign is forthcoming, and in the meantime they are active in NSN, along with their three young children. Sheeraz and Shazia wrote their answers to these questions together.
Joining the struggle: We were motivated by watching Satinder Kaur Grewal on CTV News [talk about] how she and NSN decided to fight for their rights and expose the wage thieves instead of doing nothing and waiting for results for years through labour court. We also wanted quicker results and decided to share our [experiences] and let the people know what we were going through.
Lessons and challenges: NSN is a movement of love, support, and attention for all kinds of people. We have learned a lot about our rights – dos and don’ts while dealing with exploitation. Uncooperative police and violence from wage thieves at protests have been challenging. But [we have] accepted these challenges and dealt with them very well.
Futures: We envision the [spread] of NSN all over the country, where each achievement of NSN is mentioned on all national news channels and newspapers.
Qualities to cultivate: To be actively involved, you should be bold and confident. Expose the wage thieves on social media. Engage at least once a month to learn and share experiences and viewpoints in meetings and protests, and volunteer [to put up posters].
Sources of strength: I, Sheeraz, lost my parents when I was just 18 years old. My elder sisters took care of me and my siblings. In the last three years, I lost my three lovely sisters [to] cancer at a very young age. Seeing them fighting for every breath was painful. Their achievements and power keep me going.
In May 2022, Alpha College suddenly unenrolled hundreds of international students, leaving them in crisis. The students responded by independently organizing and doing an eight-day encampment in and around the college in Scarborough, with NSN’s support. They were successful in securing enrolment. Jaspreet was among them and is now an NSN member.
Joining the struggle: Struggle lives in the blood of Panjabis. Wherever there is injustice, our people don’t hesitate to raise their voice. But life in Canada is busy for us and it’s very difficult to gather large numbers for protests in the way we can in India. People cannot take out time to stand with others, so we have to raise our voice for ourselves. That’s what we did. At first, a few students began to individually visit Alpha College to demand answers. No one heard us. Then we learned that there were many other students with the same problem, so in two days we created a WhatsApp group of Alpha College students. Then we protested in front of the college, after which many students got re-enrolled. But most were still left with no answers. When the college refused to listen to us, we became exasperated and decided to permanently sit outside Alpha College for an encampment. Many organizations and individuals joined us to support and offer their thoughts on what to do next. There, NSN members also joined us and shared their insights on how to wage struggle and the options available to us.
Lessons and challenges: The college used all sorts of tactics to break up our protest. They tried to intimidate us with threats and used the “divide and rule” tactic. We started getting calls from our immigration consultants telling us to stop protesting because the college will destroy our lives in Canada, or they told us we should leave the other students and return to Panjab, then use their services again [to immigrate back to Canada through another college]. But we had made a decision at that moment that if we are standing, then we will stand until every last student gets re-enrolled no matter what. The biggest problem was that many students among us began heading back home from the protest. In part, this was because the college had confirmed their enrolments and picked off the students outside the college one by one. The students were getting trapped in this tactic, and by the end very few organizations and fewer students were left with us. NSN stayed with us – six to seven of their members and other individuals stood with us daily in support.
Futures: Everyone should become aware about their rights, [learn] to discern between right and wrong, and have the courage to raise their voice. Even if you have to stand alone, you should not step back. We should eliminate fears of deportation or the idea that our futures will not materialize if we take action. We should not be silent and we must have the strength to stand with others.
Qualities to cultivate: The most important quality for someone who wants to be involved in this type of struggle is to be stubborn and think “these are our rights, and we will only leave after taking them.” They will tempt you with compromises, try to make you fearful, attempt to silence you, and shame and insult you publicly. But you must remain steadfast on your line and act in accordance with the truth. If you stand up, many others will come to support you. Some will join you for their personal interests, so you will need to be discerning too. Your commitment and honesty is most important.
Sources of strength: I was inspired by many individuals and organizations, such as the farmers’ protests. While living in India, I had many opportunities to participate in [other] protests and those experiences have been useful here. After immigrating here, the recent protests by NSN have been an inspiration. Their method of negotiations [electing a negotiating committee but putting any offers received from employers to a full vote] was very useful to us.
Rupinder Singh Sidhu
Rupinder was owed over $4,000 in wages and vacation pay from an auto repair shop called Sukh Auto. When Rupinder demanded what he was owed, the employer, Sukhdeep Hunjan, threatened to have him deported and struck Rupinder’s shoulder with a shovel. Rupinder stood his ground and said, “If you have the guts, hit me,” but Hunjan retreated and called the police. Since Rupinder joined NSN, the group has protested twice in front of the repair shop in Brampton. After the first protest, Hunjan filed a $515,000 defamation lawsuit against Rupinder and NSN. During the second protest, Hunjan smacked down NSN’s banner and tried to snatch a microphone from an NSN member. One of Hunjan’s supporters then punched an NSN member in the face and pulled on his beard. In September, Rupinder won his Ministry of Labour claim and his employer was ordered to pay him $4,352.90 in stolen wages plus $1,000 in compensation.
Joining the struggle: I used to watch NSN’s protest videos on TikTok, in which I saw how workers fought for their rights and how the NSN team supports them. In my case, after seeing these videos, I contacted NSN, described my case, and shared my proof. After they reviewed my evidence, they said they will stand with me in this fight.
Lessons, challenges, and futures: So far I have learned that if we are right and truthful, then we should all stand up for our rights. I see a flourishing future for our members. I want for us to get what we are owed and be successful in our futures.
Qualities to cultivate: I believe that to win in this struggle, we need dedication and an iron will.
Sources of strength: The NSN team is an inspiration to me. Their dedication and participation in every struggle, and the passion with which they speak, gives me motivation and strength.
Gaganpreet is owed $9,689.14 in wages from a warehouse in Brampton. After a year of working to ensure the warehouse turned a profit, she resigned and demanded her outstanding wages. Her employer falsely accused her of “time fraud” and told her that “by law we don’t have to pay extra for overtime” – patently false under Ontario labour law. He also told her he had contacted immigration authorities to revoke his letters of support for her permanent residency application. When she started her next job as a dispatcher for a trucking company, yet again the company she worked for stole $2,571.66 in wages. Her campaign against Parts Avatar began on October 8, 2022, with a protest outside the warehouse.
Joining the struggle: The struggle that NSN has waged against employers and other capitalists […] has instilled so much courage in us and it has woken us up. For the first time, because of NSN, we have the opportunity to look our employers in the eye and demand our rights proudly.
Lessons and challenges: We have learned that one should not compromise on their self-respect and principles, and never abandon their rights at any cost. The biggest lesson is that one should stand up for themselves, only then are they capable of standing for others. There are no notable challenges – with patience, we will be victorious. We have learned to be in chardi kala [relentlessly high spirits] through NSN’s solidarity.
Futures: We want for NSN’s future to be so bright that not only would wage thieves dread organized workers, but so too would our governments that allow this exploitation to occur.
Qualities to cultivate: It’s very important for anyone who wants to be involved in this struggle to cultivate patience and self-respect. Someone who can give what is in their hand to another and stand with them, that person can thrive in this movement.
Sources of strength: Whatever form the struggle takes, my role model and inspiration is always our tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, and his Singhs, including Sant [Jarnail Singh] Bhindranwale. Our Gurus taught us to live with self-respect and live for others.
Rohit was owed $8,071.98 in wages for working as a butcher and delivery driver at Al-Madina Halal Meat. In addition to trying to illegally deduct from his wages, the employer threatened him with deportation and criminal charges for asserting his rights. When Rohit joined an NSN meeting in July 2021, he explained how the employers’ exploitative practices nearly drove him to suicide. NSN planned a campaign and protested in front of Al-Madina in Cambridge, Ontario, on October 9, 2021. Two months later, the Ministry of Labour ordered the employer to pay not only Rohit’s wages but also $2,000 in compensation for reprisal. Rohit has now been paid what he was owed.
Joining the struggle: Our way of struggle is different compared to other protests that often happen, because it’s not like we protest once and then our work is done. We make the employer face just how much they have exploited their worker, how much they have abused them.
Lessons and qualities to cultivate: I gained awareness and learned about my rights – how we can use [our rights] and access them in the future. For those who have had their wages stolen and want to launch their campaign through NSN, I have just one piece of advice for them: have guts and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the group, and have faith. Victory always belongs to the truth. Wage thieves seek to scare us, just like they tried to do with me when we launched the campaign with the group. My employer called me to try to intimidate me into stopping the campaign and threatened me with legal action or report[ing me] to immigration. We should not be afraid. We should stand with NSN – they will guide us about next steps. Don’t act in haste, go step-by-step according to the procedures of the group.
Futures: I want the group to spread so much awareness that our coming generations, students who are coming from India, know about their rights so well that no one can exploit us. I pray for our group to stay in chardi kala and to be successful. Hopefully, our group quickly expands nationally, although it is almost there.
Sources of strength: [NSN members are] my role models. They worked hard on my campaign, wrote down details, and did media work while taking time out of their lives. I’m so thankful to […] everyone who took time out to support my campaign. In Canada, it is very hard to take time out [of our working lives], so to stand with someone here is a big deal. Our group’s motive is to make everyone aware. Those who have already been preyed upon, who have already had their wages stolen [will fight], but the next generation of international students should be aware about their rights so that they can take action. If we’re aware first, we can prevent exploitation.
Navpreet is one of 10 long-haul truck drivers owed wages by Gagandeep Dhaliwal, owner of Canadawide Logistics. Altogether the drivers were owed over $40,000 in wages, with some, including Navpreet, having now recovered their wages. The employer also openly verbally harassed the drivers, insulted their families, and disparaged the Sikh religion. To demand both the drivers’ wages and a public apology, we protested in front of Gagandeep’s home on October 2, 2021, and January 1, 2022. Navpreet is a key leader in this ongoing campaign.
Joining the struggle: Early on […] I was already embedded in the struggle. When I learned of NSN, I heard about others’ suffering and my own story felt smaller on its own. The first thing I felt was that people are willing to stand with me, that there is support.
Lessons and challenges: When we walk on the path of truth, then there are always challenges. What I have learned in our group is that we have won many cases on the basis of our unity. So the biggest learning is [the power of] being one. We have in us the spirit of fighting, and we have made employers and governments kneel in front of that spirit.
Futures: I hope, with God’s blessing, that our members never lose our unity. Whatever our future plans may be, as I’ve said many times especially regarding students’ struggles, I think that we should work to change the 20-hour policy [which limits the number of hours that international students can work off campus to 20 hours per week ] and the PR [permanent residency] system. We should go head-to-head with the government. Through our work so far we have reduced a lot of exploitation, but until we work on the 20-hour policy and the PR system, the exploitation will not stop. In addition to employers, we will have to make governments kneel too.
Qualities to cultivate: First, one should be a fighter themselves. Second, they should have empathy for others in their struggles and stand with them. They should not only stand for their own interests alone. This quality we only see in someone once they set their case aside and stand with another worker in their campaign. Even if their protest is delayed, they keep coming. So we see these qualities in people reveal themselves with time.
Sources of strength: The greatest strength we get is from Guru Sahib and the Singhs and Shaheed [martyrs] in our history. Actually, the spirit we have learned about in our history is at work now. This is our responsibility for Guru Sahib.
Attar is a long-haul truck driver who joined NSN after raising his voice independently against an employer, who subsequently filed a $125,000 defamation lawsuit against him. He brought his expertise about the trucking industry and fighting spirit to the movement. Around the time Attar joined, a second employer stole $26,521.88 in wages and entitlements from him. His case is ongoing.
Joining the struggle: Being Sikh-Panjabi, struggle is in our blood. For thousands of years, our ancestors have been struggling against injustice. This never ceases to motivate us. Our method of struggle isn’t all that new because even in the farmers’ protest, we were encouraged to fight for our rights. It was also the right time for this struggle. If we had not taken it up, then someone else would have because injustice and exploitation is only increasing.
Lessons and challenges: I have learned from this struggle that it has become all too common to violate workers’ rights, to enact injustice against them at work, to torture them. We have faced a range of challenges, from deportation threats to defamation lawsuits, all the way to threats of physical violence. We have confronted these challenges through love for and trust in each other, learning from one another, and studying the law. This is how we stay on the right path.
Futures: We want for all our members to stand up on their own two feet and to cultivate revolutionary qualities such as a strong will [and] iron determination. We want to give birth to these qualities and remove fear from their hearts. We dream of a future where no worker’s wages are stolen and no one is exploited.
Qualities to cultivate: If someone wants to join this struggle, they need to have leadership qualities and a spirit of fighting back so that they can firmly stand against injustice.
Sources of strength: Our role models are our ancestors, our Gurus. We get our inspiration from Sikh history and recently from the farmers’ struggle against the three farm laws. We derive our strength from Guru Sahib, from God, our families, and people who tell us we are on the path of truth – we get a lot of support from them.
The authors, Simran and Parmbir, are members of the Naujawan Support Network.