Daily Archives: June 8, 2012

Translating the Quebec Student Protests

Translating the Quebec student protests
by Joan Donovan | June 7, 2012

Compared to its current clamor, the Quebec student protests began last year with a whimper. In March of 2011, Finance Minister Raymond Bachand announced that Quebec student tuition would increase by $325 every year for five years. By August, student organizations were debating the possibility of an unlimited student strike. In February 2012, student organizations from several colleges and universities endorsed the action and blockaded Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge, a major artery in the city. Over the next few months, numerous violent clashes with Montreal police led to mass arrests. But on May 18, 2012, Quebec’s Premier Charest raised the stakes by instituting “special” Bill 78. This law prohibited protests within 50 meters of any university, effectively making all of downtown Montreal a protest-free zone. May 22 marked the 100th day of the strike, and nearly 400,000 people marched through downtown joyously defying the law.

As the state repression of the student movement heightened, so has the creativity of the students’ tactical repertoire, which has expanded to include marching nude, community assemblies and, especially important in Quebec’s bilingual society, the tactical use of translation though music and words.

J.B. Staniforth, a McGill graduate and writer, explains that there is a Francophone cultural memory that differs from its Anglophone counterpart. “People who don’t speak French have no idea how different Francophone culture and values are from Anglophone culture,” he says, “particularly given the history of Franco culture rooted in protest and rebellion. The Québécois owe much of their present identity to rebelling against the authoritarian rule of Dupléssis in the fifties.” Maurice Dupléssis, Quebec’s Premier from 1936 to 1939 and 1944 to 1959 is best remembered for corrupt politics and violently suppressing the left.

Resisters in Quebec have recently taken up two translation-based tactics in particular that aim to increase participation in the protests and bridge the cultural divide. Protesters have rallied around a series of musical night marches to counteract the increased police pressure. They’ve also started a blog to pit the English media’s coverage against that of the French.

After Bill 78 passed, a decentralized form of resistance fomented in neighborhoods across the city, in which at 8 o’clock every night people participate in the “casserole protests” by banging on pots and pans while marching near their homes. The Montreal police Twitter account, which usually provides information about the location of the central protest, suggests that the police have been unable to follow, corral or control these distributed actions. People of all ages take to the streets with a spirit of joy and resistance. This tactic, borrowed from movements in places like Argentina and Chile, has been taken up by solidarity marches around the world, including a recent one by Occupy Wall Street in New York.

Two casserole marches meet and run cheering toward one another. By J.B. Staniforth

In Montreal, every act of police or legislative oppression is met with new neighborhood nodes emerging, from the suburbs of Saint Hubert to the island communities of Verdun and LaSalle. The clinks and clanks of pots on balconies turn into roaming clusters of people converging at the borders of neighboring boroughs. They stop briefly along the way to greet one another. This is truly a unique moment for the city, as many political issues hinge on a deep cultural divide between Francophones and Anglophones not just in the Province, but also across Canada. The music of the casseroles translates their struggles, giving no preference to a single voice or language. Speaking through music provides the levity and spontaneity necessary to fight back against state oppression during dark times. But this is not the only space in which an act of translation is uniting the people of Montreal and of Canada as a whole.

The movement has faced a challenge in that mainstream media accounts of it reflect a severe cultural divide. While the English media portray the students as entitled and naïve, usually siding with the government, the French reports depict a vastly different scene of students fighting for the civil rights of generations to come. Disheartened by the English language media coverage of Bill 78, a group of friends hatched a plan to fight back using a tumblr blog, aptly titled Translating the Printemps Érable (Maple Spring). They chose tumblr as a platform because it allows for the quick dissemination of information, along with the ability for others to submit content.

Greame Williams, an admin for the site, elaborates on its origins:

I subscribe to the Saturday edition of Le Devoir (a French-language paper), and the morning after Law 78 was passed, the editorial line of the paper was unambiguous in condemning it as a likely illegal and unconstitutional authoritarian act. Then I looked at the Globe and Mail, and they thought that the law was justified in ending the student strike. That was the breaking point leading to the blog being actually created, but poor coverage in the English-language media generally led up to this.

By setting the mainstream outlets against one another, the blog undermines their claims to journalistic objectivity.

A. Wilson, a translator for the site, adds that the problem is also rooted in the limitations of monolingual publishers themselves. “The French media,” she explains, “gets more in-depth, primary-source interviews with main players in the crisis just because many are more comfortable interviewing in French, typically their mother tongue.”

The great irony of the English media’s portrayal of the protests is that many involved in the blog and in the casserole marches do not directly benefit from the students’ cause and see it as anything but naïve. A woman who goes by Anna, an admin for the Maple Spring blog, says:

I am not a student, but I hope to have kids someday and so I am invested in education being affordable in that way. But more importantly, I will benefit from a more accessible, equitable Quebec if the students “win” because we all do; I want my neighbors to be able to educate themselves, and I want our society to have a high and rigorous level of debate. All of this is only possible with accessible education.

With people like Anna recognizing themselves in the students’ struggle, the task of translation and breaking down boundaries seems all the more important. It may help many more of them to turn from bystanders to participants.

“The Strike is for Students. The Struggle is for Everyone!” By J.B. Staniforth

“Casseroles Night in Canada” is quickly replacing the famed “Hockey Night in Canada,” with solidarity protests across the globe last week, organized largely through online social media. The focus of these protests in other locales is different, but they are united by a common cause of valuing affordable education for the social good it provides. That is something that anyone, in any language, should be able to understand.

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Barracks and Unpaid Wages: How Ukrainian Migrant Workers Are Treated by Euro 2012 Construction Contractors

The illegal hostel for “guest workers” was built only a few years ago, before “the Euro.” But the floor in the barracks is as black as in century-old homes. There is dirt everywhere here – no traces of cleaning or compliance with sanitary norms. A narrow corridor leads to tiny rooms filled with crudely assembled cots.

The Barracks of Olympic Stadium
Andriy Manchuk

“It’s like this. You’re workers. You pour concrete forms. You’ve been hired to work at the construction site with our crew, and you’re moving into the barracks. Does everyone got that?” our guides instruct us.

They are real concrete layers. They have agreed to show us the living and working conditions of the people building the main venue for the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship.

We stand amidst old garages on the shore of a fetid sewage drain only two hundred meters from Lybidskaya metro station – almost in the city center by Kyiv standards. Here, behind a fence, is a two-story shack inhabited by construction workers. Employees of a security company guard the entrance to the lot. We must try to not engage them in conversation and immediately go to the barracks under the cover of our “foreman.”

According to the workers, this illegal hostel for “guest workers” [zarobitchani – see Translator’s Note, below] was built only a few years ago, before “the Euro.” But the floor in the barrack is as black as in century-old homes. There is dirt everywhere here – no traces of cleaning or compliance with even the most primitive sanitary norms. A narrow corridor leads to tiny rooms filled with crudely assembled two-storey bunks. Each of these small rooms contains sixteen such beds, but, according to the workers, sometimes there have not been enough beds, and people have slept on the floor, using their own clothes or a blanket for a mattress. It is daytime now, and most of the room’s inhabitants are at work – on the construction sites at Olympic Stadium and the new passenger terminal at Boryspil Airport.

The poor sanitation and poverty of the room to which we have been brought are stunning. The wooden bunks, fitted with dirty mattresses, are broken in several places. There is garbage on the floor and a tin filled with cigarette buts. The nightstands between the beds are covered with dirty plates, packets of instant soup, and pieces of dried bread. The air in the room is stuffy, although the window is open. There is also garbage piled outside the window in which rats are scurrying. But beyond the fence topped with barbed wire you can see golden domes lying lined up on the ground: next door, work is under way on the largest cathedral in Ukraine, and there is a brisk trade in church paraphernalia going on there.

“Look what our people eat,” our “foreman” Vasily Pastushenko tells us as he opens the nightstands for us. “Poor people live here. The employers promise money to the workers, but then they just screw them over. They owe each of us three and half thousand hryvnias [approximately 350 euros], but they gave us a hundred hryvnias each in cash. And that was before the holidays! People didn’t even have enough money to travel home. And they also deduct twenty hryvnias a day for this ‘housing’ here.”

There is a latrine instead of a toilet in the barracks – several closed buckets in a separate room. It is impossible to cook here: the workers use only an electric water-heating wand as they are forbidden to use gas-powered heating devices. A few years ago, seven guest workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a similar shack near Kyiv.

“This is how we live. We envy Yulia Tymoshenko – her prison is like paradise compared with our shack. It’s never heated, and there is no insulation. In the winter, there would be frost on the walls in the mornings, and everyone went to work sick, some even with a high temperature,” the workers tell us as we photograph the room.

We had very little time to do this: a few minutes later the commandant ran into the room. He had a black eye and had obviously been drunk since morning (although the guards forbid workers from drinking in the barracks). He took us for fired workers and yelled at us, pointing to some other people’s bags.

“You don’t fucking live here anymore! Take your bags and scram. I’ll give you ten minutes.”

“We had money deducted from our wages for accommodation. But we haven’t been paid yet. You have no right to kick people out,” our foreman tried to argue. But everyone headed for the door. Conflicts with the security guards had never ended well for the workers.

Vasily Pastushenko, a native of the town of Uman, heads a group of fifteen guest workers hired for construction of Olympic Stadium who were deceived by their employers.

“They promised us mountains of gold. They practically said that [Ukrainian prime minister Nikolai] Azarov would pay us our wages. The facility, a parking lot at the stadium, has to be finished by the first of May, but they’re already behind schedule and have hired a bunch of people. Moreover, it’s not the firm itself that is doing this, but subcontractors or even sub-sub-subcontractors,” Vasily laughs. “They’re the ones who do the hiring, but the firm is out of the picture as it were. We go to them to get paid, but they don’t even know us, although we built everything here.”

“Everything here is muddled. They say the contracts for Euro 2012 were handed out in exchange for huge kickbacks – up to twenty-five percent of the total value of the contracts. Well, in order to ‘recapture’ all this money, they economize on us, the workers. They hire us without contracts or work agreements, scam us every step of the way, and house us in bestial conditions. At the same time, millions are being embezzled here. When I saw our accountant driving a Mitsubishi Pajero SUV, I immediately realized we wouldn’t see our money.”

We go with the workers to the construction site, getting in using the same legend that we are “concrete layers.” On the hill above the bowl of Olympic Stadium, where the Euro 2012 finals will take place, several hundred men, nervously urged on by supervisors, work right next to a precipice. It is a sight reminiscent of the building of the Great Pyramids.

“Look over there: a middleman has just brought some new workers. And those are the rescuers over there,” Vasily points. “Lest someone gets into an accident. While we’ve been working here, several workers have been killed at the site.”

I immediately remembered how the leader of a guest workers union had told us in an interview about injuries at Olympic Stadium. According to him, employers do not even know who is working for them, a fact that came to light only after the tragedies

“And work safety? Does anyone monitor it?”

“Work safety,” Vasily grins ironically. “A supervisor came to my crew once, to give us safety instructions as it were. He mumbled something to those who were present and then made as if to leave. I say to him, ‘Wait a second until all our people have gathered.’ He says to me, ‘Fuck off. You can tell them yourself.’

“No one complies with safety regulations when working at heights. We work without safety straps, and no one requires it. If someone is injured, then formally he didn’t work here. There was a kiosk at the site that sold all kinds of food at inflated prices and even beer – this at a construction site, where alcohol always leads to injuries. But we were issued only gloves and crappy boots, and even then not enough for everyone. It’s pointless to talk about the quality of work done in such conditions.”

We walk around the construction site, and the workers show us metal containers, piled with heaps of garbage.

“Look, people are living in each of these boxes. Right here on the construction site. We’ve spent the night here ourselves more than once. One of our guys became seriously ill, but he couldn’t move out or pay for himself. And we had no money to help – they don’t pay our wages. So they came to throw him out,” says Vasily.

“I asked them to wait a day. I said I’d come from my shift [the next day] and bring them money for him. But they wouldn’t have any of it.”

Those who do not want to live in the barracks often settle in illegal hostels for guest workers in private flats. Two such flats – separate ones for men and women – are located on my street, on the outskirts of Kyiv’s Pozniaky neighborhood. Olympic Stadium construction workers familiarized us with the interiors of these flophouses, which charge twenty to thirty hryvnias a day [i.e., up to three euros]. Each room contains ten beds. However, married couples cannot live together, and tenants are not allowed to enter the flat after midnight, listen to music or have guests (even their own husbands or wives) without special permission from the owners. Living with children is also strictly prohibited. Violators are evicted or turned over to the neighborhood police inspector.

There is a similar dormitory on Decembrists Street, in a building where the honest-fisted Klitschko brothers once lived, and it is far from the only such place in the blocks of the Darnytsia district. According to the guest workers, this is a systematized business nowadays. The owners of the apartment hostels are usually connected to the people who supply labor to the construction sites. They often are one and the same people, and find it easy to come to an agreement with the police. If you have seen newspaper ads for high-paying jobs with low-cost housing included, then likely as not they were ads for barracks and construction sites where wages are not paid.

In six weeks’ time, millions of TV viewers will gaze at the bowl of Olympic Stadium, where VIPs from all over Europe will gather. It is important that they know about the living and working conditions of the people who built these football facilities. It is important that they see Ukraine not through the gloss of tourist brochures, but the way it looks in the gloomy workers’ barracks in the center of the capital.

Photos by Ilya Derevyanko


“The ruling class needs only one thing – profits, profits and more profits,” Vladimir Cheremis said at the protest rally. “Thanks to this scandal, the whole world can see what Ukrainian capitalism is like.”


“Nothing to Lose”: Euro 2012 Constructions Workers Protest
Andriy Manchuk

“I have never spoken to reporters. This is the first time in my life,” a construction worker confusedly told a Ukrainian TV reporter. The man was one of the people who have been building facilities at flashy Olympic Stadium, where the matches of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship begin tomorrow.

On June 7, activists from the Social Movement [Sotsialnyi Rukh] coalition held a protest on Kreshchatyk against the systematic violation of the labor rights of the “guest workers” [zarobitchani] who built the entire infrastructure for Euro 2012 – from stadiums and terminals to highway overpasses and parking garages. As they fabulously enriched themselves on this nationally important construction project, subcontractors failed to pay an entire crew of concrete workers who built the parking facility at Olympic Stadium – a practice, common at most Kyiv construction sites, that massively victimizes workers who have been hired illegally.

Dmitry Tkachuk, a concrete worker from the village of Tucha in the Vinnytsia region of Ukraine, told a Gazeta.ua reporter about the builders of Ukraine’s main stadium live and work.

“Three months ago I came to Kyiv looking for work. At the train station, our crew of fifteen people was hired to work at Olympic Stadium. The man who hired us introduced himself as Ivan Ivanovich [i.e., “John Johnson”]. He promised us mountains of gold. I figured I could earn eight or nine thousand hryvnias. We live in a barracks. There is a complete lack of sanitation, one toilet for everybody. To go there in the morning you have to wait in a long queue. The first two weeks we worked we weren’t paid a kopeck. At first we paid for food with the money we’d brought with us. Then we sold off our mobile phones to pay for food. Also, we would from Lybidskaya metro station to Olympic Stadium [to save money]. Most of the guys returned home without a kopeck to show for their efforts, but I can’t tell my parents about this. We’re now working for 150 hryvnias a day [i.e., approx. 15 euros a day]. We send a hundred home and chip in twenty hryvnias a day for food for each of us. We have thirty hryvnias left over for all other expenses… We have nothing to lose.”

Ukrainian and foreign journalists gazed wide-eyed at the workers, as if they were aliens from an unknown planet.

“You say you’re owed forty thousand hryvnias [approx. 4,000 euros]. But in our line of work one shooting trip costs more than that,” a TV reporter said to a construction worker with a smile.

In response, the workers talked about their daily lives. A 19-year-old woman who had been hired to cook was raped in the barracks recently. And workers literally have to beat subcontractors into paying them – with fists and iron bars.

The protesters symbolically chained themselves to the gates of the fan zone, whence foreign tourists looked at them in amazement. Vitaly Mikhonko, leader of Hammer and Sickle, a trade union for guest construction workers, said that on June 8 Polish workers would block the tournament’s opening ceremony in Warsaw, demanding payment of back wages. By agreement with its Polish comrades, the Social Movement will block the final match of Euro 2012 in Kyiv if the Ukrainian Cabinet fails to meet their demands –immediately pay all back wages to workers, ensure normal living conditions, strictly observe work safety rules, and sign contracts with everyone employed at the construction sites, under the supervision of independent trade unions.

“The ruling class needs only one thing – profits, profits and more profits,” Vladimir Cheremis said at the protest rally. “Thanks to this scandal, the whole world can see what Ukrainian capitalism is like.”

When the rally was over, activists staged an unauthorized march along Kreshchatyk and Institutskaya Street to the Cabinet building, where they handed a petition outlining the workers’ demands to government officials. “We worked, but you didn’t pay!” the marchers chanted. Near the Cabinet building they ran into three MPs – Vasily Khara, Alexander Stoyan and Yaroslav Sukhoi, authors and lobbyists of the new proposed Labor Code. To their misfortune, the MPs had left for their lunch break at the wrong time. Sergei Kirichuk, coordinator of the Borotba Association [The Struggle], called on the MPs to withdraw the anti-labor law bill from parliament, and the three men quickly retreated to loud whistling and cries of “Shame!”

The rally in support of guest construction workers was the latest stage in the process of building a new leftist movement in Ukraine. By defending the rights of the most vulnerable segment of Ukrainian laborers – migrant workers – coalition members encourage those who have nothing to lose but their chains to protest.

Translator’s Note. The “guest workers” – or zarobitchani (in Ukrainian) – referred to in these articles are not migrant workers from other countries, but economic migrants from other regions of Ukraine who come to Kyiv, the country’s capital, in search of work. But the term (which literally means “earners”) is applied to all Ukrainian migrant laborers, including those who work abroad. According to some sources, there are 4.5 million such zarobitchani. They work in Russia, the EU countries, and the US, and contribute as much as eight percent of Ukraine’s total GDP through their remittances.


Euro 2012 Construction Worker Blues
May 31 | Svitlana Tuchynska
Money trail leads to black holes

Construction workers are rushing to finish work near Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium, the gleaming modern centerpiece of Ukraine’s preparations for the Euro 2012 tournament and venue for the July 1 championship match.

But behind the impressive visage of the state-funded, $550 million stadium lies a tale of deaths, injuries and unpaid wages for laborers.

At least six people have been killed in stadium construction accidents since 2008, according to the Kyiv city prosecutor, while workers say the number of fatal victims is actually 10. But more common, workers say, is simply bad treatment of them…

Read the rest of the article here.


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