London stabbing thrusts Asian grocery stores under spotlight
By Kate Dubinski, Kelly Pedro, The London Free Press
Wednesday, January 16, 2013 9:55:50 EST PM
Food Island Supermarket, which opened just three weeks ago is located at Wonderland and Oxford streets in London. Two employees of the supermarket were involved in a stabbing at two homes on Beaverbrook Avenue nearby on Tuesday Jan 15. 2013. MIKE HENSEN/The London Free Press/QMI AGENCY
It sticks out like a sore thumb — more than a dozen people packed into a house built for a single family in a quiet London suburb.
Next door, there’s another just like it.
But the portrait that’s slowly emerging behind the two London houses — of Chinese workers brought to Canada to work in Asian supermarkets, living in cramped conditions — is being painted in several London neighbourhoods.
It was a stabbing Tuesday that thrust the two Beaverbrook Ave. houses under the spotlight.
One man was left fighting for life in hospital with neck wounds, still in critical condition Wednesday. Another is charged.
Police aren’t saying whether the 23-year-old victim and the man charged, Yang Zhang, 21, are Canadians or foreign nationals.
But it’s clear both houses — newer three- and four-bedroom properties that hit the market in the mid-$300,000 range — are filled with workers for the newly-opened Food Island Supermarket at Oxford St. and Wonderland Rd., several blocks away.
The Free Press was told by a woman who answered the door at 1703 Beaverbrook both the victim and the charged man live there, and that both arrived about a month ago from Toronto. She said she didn’t know what led to the stabbing, but other roommates had told her the two were drunk.
Big-city Canada is accustomed to stories of temporary foreign workers brought to this country to work as domestics or labourers, sometimes only to find out once here they’re forced into much worse — like the sex trade — and indebted to those who sponsored them, unable to get away.
London police — they’ve wrapped their probe — say there’s no suggestion human trafficking is the case here.
But what’s different for London is the below-radar world of Asian food stores staffed by workers, many from Asia, put up by their employers.
The Food Island Supermarket isn’t alone.
An employee of another Asian grocery store opening in London, Superking Supermarket at Westmount Shopping Centre, confirmed it will employ temporary foreign workers from China.
They’re already in Toronto, waiting to work, the staffer said.
The United Supermarket on Adelaide St., which has been open for two years, also puts its employees up in a home near the store, sources said.
Other Asian supermarkets bring temporary foreign workers to Canada and give them room and board for a portion of their pay, which is often low — perfectly legal under the federal program that imports workers for jobs Canadians don’t want.
“A low-paying job in Canada is a high-paying job in China, especially if you come from a poor village,” said Shih-Fen Chen, an international business professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University.
“Historically, immigrants have come to North America to take the low-paying jobs people here don’t want.”
Next door to 1703 Beaverbrook is 1709, a similar-sized house. A man who answered the door there when The Free Press knocked said he doesn’t speak English and closed the door.
It’s unclear whether Food Island employees are temporary foreign workers or or why so many are living in two homes, but neighbours say both are packed with employees of the food store.
Public records show one house is owned by a numbered Ontario company that shares the same address as the food store, and the other by a person with a Mississauga address whose name also appears as an administrator for the numbered company.
Neighbhours have said both homes were recently heavily renovated.
Coming from villages to Canada where they may not know the languages or laws, things can be tough for Chinese workers in Canada, said Chen.
“If you look at Asian culture in general — they are humble, they do not complain, particularly in a country where they don’t speak the language,” he said.
Why don’t more employers who rely on such help hire people already in Canada?
“They do and they complain,” he said. “People who are here legally might quit or are fired because they complain too much about working conditions.”
There are regulations to make sure workers aren’t exploited, but often no enough resources are spent on enforcement, Chen said.
Many families take out loans for foreign workers to go to Canada, adding pressure on the workers here, said Sister Sue Wilson of the London Area Coalition of Assisting Trafficked Persons.
Since Canadian law ties work permits for temporary foreign workers to employers, those workers can’t just walk away from a job, she added.
It’s possible to get a new work permit, but that can take up to six months, said Wilson, and migrant workers can’t survive that long without one.
Working and living conditions are very different in China, making it more palatable if a company offers to house many workers in a single-family home.
“They might come from a place where they don’t have running water, no electricity, no indoor toilet. Here, they have all that and heat in the winter. It’s acceptable,” Chen said.
“Even if you’re making $7 an hour, that’s a lot compared to what you can make in China.”
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