Written by Daniela Costa
Following the Second World War, Toronto began to expand at a rapid rate. New structures for government and business were built as part of the city’s movement towards becoming a modern metropolis. The actual building of these structures, and then their maintenance, was accomplished by labourers, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants. A significant number of those labourers were Portuguese men, who worked in construction, and women, who worked as cleaners. Together, these men and women worked hard to help re-build the city and maintain its new structures. At the same time, they helped make changes to workers rights and safety.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Portuguese migrants, many without higher education, became labourers concentrated in construction and janitorial services. For Portuguese women, employment was concentrated in the garment industry, and cleaning services where most of them received informal, on the job training. There was a high rate of industrial accidents for Portuguese men in the construction industry, and for women in the garment industry who expressed health-related problems from their work with chemicals.
The residential construction industry sometimes acquired workers from an underground, undocumented labour pool. Without legal status, many undocumented workers found themselves the victims of unpaid wages, dangerous working conditions, discrimination, and were left without compensation for workplace injuries. Among them were many workers of Portuguese descent. In April of 2006, when a number of Portuguese and Hispanic workers without proper legal status were being deported from Canada, the community responded with petitions and rallies in their defence. Their chants of ‘Support, don’t deport’ would not go unheard, and eventually Toronto City Council and The House of Commons passed motions condemning the deportations. Behind this story lay not only the complicated issue of undocumented workers, but also the broader dynamic of immigrants in Toronto without proper paperwork, and the underground workforce that develops as a result.
For those in construction, in particular, unionization was a significant way to gain protection from poor working conditions and poor pay. Some Portuguese men played important roles in the Labourers International Union of North America, Local 183. Unions helped ensure better pay, workplace safety and employment security, which in turn improved the broader financial stability of the Portuguese community. The Portuguese became one of the dominant immigrant groups in the construction industry in Toronto during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. They worked side by side with other immigrant labourers from various backgrounds to build such structures as the CN Tower, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Perhaps most noteworthy, Portuguese men spent decades working on the Toronto Pearson International Airport, the same site that welcomed the majority of them to the country.
Portuguese women perhaps faced greater challenges trying to improve their working conditions. Given the traditional division of labour in Portugal based on gender, the participation of Portuguese woman in the labour force was below average. Yet in Toronto some women worked more than one job and made incredible sacrifices with regards to family and domestic life in order to earn additional income. One of the problems for Portuguese women in the garment and cleaning industries was that parts of Section 63 of the Ontario Labour Relations Act (Successor Rights Section) did not apply to cleaners or sub-contracted workers. Therefore, when unionized businesses were sold to new owners, the continuation of collective bargaining and union rights came to an end. This meant that a cleaning contract could be terminated at any point and an employee replaced by another willing to work for lower wages. Such issues forced Portuguese women in these industries to organize and push for changes, some of which remain to this day. A standout in textiles was McGregor Hosiery Mills, where the women were strong in organizing. As for the cleaners, notable unionized work places included the Queen’s Park complex, the Toronto Dominion Centre and First Canadian Place.
There was a clear relationship between exploitation in the workplace and limited language skills, for without familiarity with local institutions and laws, many immigrant workers were unable to defend themselves against poor working conditions and limited workers’ rights. Nonetheless, by the 1970s and 1980s, Portuguese women speaking very little English were involved in strikes against cleaning companies. In 1974, they refused to work at the Toronto Dominion Centre over the re-use of dirty garbage bags. In 1986, cleaners at First Canadian Place walked off the job to protest unfair policies. These actions did not go unnoticed across the city as there was significant support shown for the plight of these workers. Although some protests were unsuccessful and many women ended up returning to work without any changes, others did succeed and final settlements were reached that included pay increases, extended contracts and some overall improvements to workers benefits.
Portuguese labourers have played important roles in the Toronto construction trade and the cleaning and garment industry. It was these immigrants and their descendants who built and maintained the new infrastructure and residential neighbourhoods of what was then becoming the financial capital of Canada and the country’s most culturally vibrant and cosmopolitan city.
Grace Anderson, Networks of Contact ‘The Portuguese in and Toronto’, (Wilfred Laurier Press, 1974).
Wenona Giles, Portuguese Women in Toronto: Gender, Immigration and Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2002).
Jonathan Clifton, “Deserving Citizenship?: Canadian Immigration Policy and Low Skilled Workers in Toronto”, retrieved from
Susan Maranda, ‘Portuguese Women in the Cleaning Industry 1970-1990’, in Victor Da Rosa and Carlos Teixeira, The Portuguese in Canada: Diasporic Challenges and Adjustment, (University of Toronto Press, 2009).
Fernando Nunes, ‘Portuguese Canadian Women, ‘Problems and Prospects’, Polyphony : Women and Ethnicity, Vol. 8, No. 1-2, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1986), pg. 61-66.
Toronto Planning Board. Committee on Buildings and Development. Kensington Health Study 1976, MHSO Portuguese Collection
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.