Human rights, including the right of workers to form trade unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively with employers, are universal and indivisible rights which inhere in all human beings by virtue of their humanity.
The Liberal Party government of the Canadian province of Ontario, however, is challenging this notion by calling on the Supreme Court of Canada to rule whether farmworkers are in fact human beings or part-time, precarious humans who abandon their humanity when they are working.
Federal Canadian legislation explicitly excludes agricultural workers. In 1990, when Ontario was governed by the union-backed New Democratic Party, provincial legislation was adopted affirming agricultural workers’ right to form unions. The law was replaced with a new ban on union organization in the sector when the provincial Tory party came to power in 1995. In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down this legislative exclusion, resulting in Ontario’s 2002 “Agricultural Employees Protection Act.” This law gives Ontario farmworkers the “right” to form “associations” but denies them the right to join a union, bargain collectively, or go on strike.
In response to legal action by UFCW Canada arising from its organizing work at the country’s largest mushroom producer, Rol-Land Farms, the Ontario Court of Appeal last November told the Ontario government to drop its ban on farmworker unions because it violates the human rights set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms embedded in the federal Constitution. The provincial government was given one year to bring in legislation to allow farmworkers to participate in the provincial industrial relations regime by bargaining collectively with employers. Many of these agricultural workers are temporary foreign workers (TFWs) or workers who come to Ontario under the Federal Government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program from countries such as Mexico, Jamaica, and Thailand.
On January 13, the Liberal Party government of Ontario Premier McGuinty confirmed its intention to appeal to the country’s Supreme Court.
The appeal was slammed by the UFCW, which has led the fight for farmworker rights. UFCW Canada together with the Agriculture Workers Alliance operates eight support centres across Canada.
In June 2008, in the province of Manitoba, the UFCW won the first-ever collective bargaining agreement to apply to seasonal migrant workers in Canada. The recognition victory at Mayfair Farms capped a nearly two-year struggle in which the company challenged the initial union certification, arguing that the Mayfair Farm workers were not employees of the company, nor was the company an employer, since the labour was contracted by the Canadian and Mexican governments. The workers were therefore not to be considered as employees for collective bargaining purposes. The Manitoba Labour Board in a comprehensive decision last year rejected these contentions, invoking the language of the Manitoba Labour Relations Act that “employee means a person employed to do work and includes any person designated by the board as an employee for the purposes of this Act.” Mayfair functioned as an employer in, for example, setting hours and conditions of work. “Viable and meaningful collective bargaining” was therefore possible, the Board ruled.
So in Manitoba, at least, farmworkers are “employees.” The Supreme Court will now decide whether they are human beings, with all the corresponding rights set out in international human rights law.
Rol-Land Farms, where the UFCW has been heavily engaged in organizing, last December announced the repatriation of over 50 Guatemalan workers labouring in Ontario under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. One month earlier, the company had fired a group of some 70 workers from Mexico and Jamaica. Many of these workers had not earned enough to repay loans needed to pay for the application fees, visas, and medicals which the TFW rules require.
UFCW president Wayne Hanley has denounced the migrant worker programs for treating immigrants as “disposable tools,” demanding that migrant workers be granted permanent resident status.
This article first appeared in the Web site of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) on 21 January 2009.