Simranjeet speaks to a crowd about her experience of wage theft in July 2022. Photo by NAMBARDAR.

Fighting Wage Theft

Simran Kaur Dhunna and Parmbir Gill

Wage theft is rampant, which is when employers steal from their employees, like by not paying wages owed, is rampant.

And it rarely gets addressed. The Naujawan [Youth] Support Network (NSN), based in Brampton, is changing that. The group was founded in June 2021 by workers fighting against their exploitation at the hands of employers, 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 won back over $250,000 in stolen wages.

Here, three members reflect on the struggle against wage theft. Their reflections have been translated from Panjabi into English.

Simranjeet Kaur

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: ਮੈਨੂੰ ਆਪਣੇ ਧਰਮ ਦੇ ਇਤਿਹਾਸ ਵਿਚੋਂ ਬਹੁਤ ਕੁਝ ਸਿੱਖਣ ਨੂੰ ਮਿਲਿਆ । ਜਿਵੇਂ ਕਿ ਮੈ ਇੱਕ ਗੱਲ ਹਮੇਸ਼ਾ ਚੇਤੇ ਰੱਖਦੀ ਜੋ ਕਿ ਸੰਤ ਜਰਨੈਲ ਸਿੰਘ ਭਿਡਰਾਂਵਾਲਿਆ ਨੇ ਕਹੀ ਸੀ ਕਿ, ਮੈ ਸਰੀਰ ਦੇ ਮਰਨ ਨੂੰ ਮੌਤ ਨਹੀ ਗਿਣਦਾ । ਜਮੀਰ ਦੇ ਮਰਨ ਨੂੰ ਮੌਤ ਗਿਣਦਾ ਹਾਂ ।

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.”

Satinder holds up a sign during a protest against her former employer. Photo by Simran Kaur Dhunna.

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: ਜੇਕਰ ਤੁਸੀਂ ਸੱਚੇ ਹੋ ਅਤੇ ਸੱਚ ਲਈ ਲੜਦੇ ਹੋ, ਤਾਂ ਦੂਸਰੇ ਤੁਹਾਡੇ ਨਾਲ ਖੜੇ ਹੋਣਗੇ ਅਤੇ ਨਤੀਜਾ ਚੰਗਾ ਹੋਵੇਗਾ। ਏਕਤਾ ਅਤੇ ਤਾਕਤ ਬਹੁਤ ਮਾਇਨੇ ਰੱਖਦੀ ਹੈ; ਉਹਨਾਂ ਤੋਂ ਬਿਨਾਂ, ਵਾਪਸ ਲੜਨਾ ਮੁਸ਼ਕਲ ਹੈ।

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 speaks to the crowd outside a company owner's home. Photo by Simran Kaur Dhunna.

Gurmukhjeet Singh

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: ਲੋਕ ਕਹਿੰਦੇ ਹੁੰਦੇ ਸੀ ਕਿ ਹੁਣ ਤਾਂ ਤੁਹਡੇ ਪੈਸੇ ਮਰ ਗਏ ਹੁਣ ਕੁਝ ਨੀ ਹੋ ਸਕਦਾ,ਜਿਆਦਾ ਤੋਂ ਜਿਆਦਾ ਲੇਬਰ ਕੌਰਟ ਵਿੱਚ ਦਾਅਵਾ ਕਰ ਸਕਦੇ ਹੋ, ਜਿਸ ਦੀ ਬਹੁਤੀ ਕੋਈ ਸੁਣਵਾਈ ਨਹੀ ਹੁੰਦੀ ਅਤੇ ਨਾ ਹੀ ਲੇਬਰ ਕੋਰਟ ਰੁਜਗਾਰਦਾਤਾ ਨੂੰ ਪੈਸੇ ਦੇਣ ਤੇ ਮਜਬੂਰ ਕਰਦਾ ਹੈ ।

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.

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.

This article appears in the December 2022 - January 2023 Issue. A longer version was originally published by Briarpatch Magazine and is available at