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Construction workers gathered Thursday night to commemorate the lives of four illegal labourers who died in a scaffolding accident Christmas Eve.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Rahim hunches his shoulders against the cold and slides his damaged hand, sheathed in a one-fingered glove, into his sweatshirt pocket. He casts his eyes across the crowd of mourners attending the vigil for four construction workers killed when scaffolding broke apart on Christmas Eve; then he considers the 13 storeys they dropped.

Union leaders, standing in front of a banner that says "No One is Illegal," urge the crowd to see these deaths as a turning point, a moment to stand up for the rights of workers with precarious immigration status. There are echoes of Hoggs Hollow 1960, they say, when five Italian immigrant workers died digging a water-main tunnel.

Migrant workers are still pushed to do the most dangerous work in our society, and the labour leaders are calling for stricter standards enforcement and a public inquiry into these deaths.

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The audience of 200 or so is made up mainly of construction workers, some wearing hardhats painted black in mourning, as well as union activists and some onlookers from the neighbourhood of the Kipling Avenue apartment towers. Possibly because migrant workers tend to avoid well-policed public gatherings, just a few friends and relatives of the men who died are here. Oksana Afanasenko, whose 32-year-old husband Aleksey Blumberg was killed that day, lingers at the back and holds up photos of some of the men for the television cameras. She's too distraught to say much, she explains, and leaves before the speeches are over.

"I don't know what happened. I want to know. Because I never see him again," she said, tears freezing on her eyelashes. In a prepared statement read to the gathering, she wrote, "Lots of guys who work in construction work without documents, or as refugees. When this happens they're afraid to tell the truth because they're afraid of deportation. I [know]they're dead, but I hope their deaths will save many lives in the future."

Mr. Blumberg, originally from Ukraine, died, along with Alexander Bondorev, also from Ukraine, and Vladimir Korostin and Fayzullo Fazilov of Uzbekistan.

Rahim (not his real name) stands on the other side of the crowd. He feels sympathy for the families, but his thoughts are focused on the one man who is absent tonight, the fifth member of the scaffold crew, Dilshod Mamurov, a 21-year-old from Uzbekistan. He is in hospital recovering from devastating injuries, having somehow survived the fall.

"I know exactly how he feels. He must wish he was dead right now," Rahim says, keeping his eyes on the crowd. "That's what I felt, anyway. I didn't come here to be a burden on anyone. I came here to work. I would rather be dead than be a burden."

Rahim, who didn't want his real name used, was once one of an estimated 100,000 underground workers in the Greater Toronto Area. He wishes he still was. Now unemployed and despondent, he lives in the basement of a suburban bungalow, sharing an 80-square-foot, dingy, shag-carpeted room with another man. They sleep on couches that face one another. A couple lives in the room next door, and another man is in the room down the hall. The sound of cartoon happiness drifts down the stairs from the main floor, where the landlord's family lives, but Rahim's life feels a million miles from that.

His story is a painful example of what can happen to migrant workers who are employed under the table and aren't given the kind of training afforded their more expensive Canadian equivalents.

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Rahim, 26, came to Canada from Pakistan on a student visa, but soon found himself overwhelmed at university. He dropped out and started working. At his peak he held two full-time jobs, lifting more than 1,200 boxes every day at a warehouse, and then struggling through the overnight shift at Tim Hortons. But when his visa ran out, he made an ill-advised refugee claim. He was told it was certain to fail. A few months later he received a summons to attend a pre-removal assessment and panicked. He dropped into the netherworld of the underground economy.

He moved to the Malton area, hoping that someone in the Brampton-Malton-Mississauga South Asian triangle would hire him under the table.

He remembers getting paid $8 an hour in cash for a job dismantling a manufacturing plant, packing crates of machinery for sale to India. He and his fellow cash-only workers slaved away at their jobs, but were happy for the chance to earn, he said. It was when he worked alongside the "white guys," as he puts it, that he noticed they didn't do anything without considering their safety. These guys worked for a big company and were getting paid $50 an hour for doing more or less the same job. They wore steel-toed boots and used machines to lift what Rahim and his colleagues tried to lug on their shoulders.

Everything was different for him. His level of pay was inconsistent, he said. He was often not paid for all the hours he worked. But as an illegal worker, he had no one to complain to. His boss was also his landlord. He explains all this sitting in the McDonald's near his home, slumping into his plastic chair. He comes here when he feels sad, he says, trying to take comfort in pigging out.

It was at an industrial plant one night last January that his life changed. He'd been working at the plant for a couple of weeks but had no safety training, nor had his under-the-table co-workers. He was told to fix a gear in the machinery and his hand was still in the rollers when they started to move. His hand was caught.

"It just rolled through. It was really smooth," Rahim said.

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He swore just once and fell to the ground, insisting that no one call 911, in case they asked about his immigration status.

At the hospital the surgeon told him there was nothing to be done. Three fingers on his left hand still hung by a thread, but they were too severely crushed to be repaired, the doctor said. They had to be amputated.

Rahim was left with just an index finger and thumb. He had no safety net. And a one-handed manual labourer was never going to find a job easily, no matter how desperately he wanted to work. His old employers turned their backs on him, he said, some because of his injury, and some because they thought he had tipped off authorities about their hiring practices.

"When I went back to ask for a job with one hand they said, 'Get out of my yard,'" Rahim recalled.

"I said I'd work for $5 an hour. He said, 'I'm sorry. It's too bad what happened to you, but I can't help you.'"

Rahim has struggled over the last year. He thinks about suicide often. He overdosed on pills once, and police stopped him from wandering in traffic when he tried repeatedly to step in front of moving vehicles.

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He doesn't know if he'll be able to stay in Canada. Border Services agents could pick him up at any time. Even if he does stay, he feels ashamed that, for the moment, he's unable to work.

"It shouldn't get to this," he said. "I was working two jobs. I was contributing to the economy. For the next person, I don't want it to be this situation. My life is over. But it doesn't have to be that way for the next person."

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