Migrant Farm Workers Organize

If you're fortunate enough to live near Manitoba's Portage la Prairie, you just might find yourself eating a union-grown vegetable.

You'll have no such luck in other provinces. Despite organizing votes held on farms in British Columbia's Fraser and Okanagan valleys, as well as in Quebec and Ontario, you won't find any Canadian union
grown fruit or veggies, yet.

Migrant farm workers, mainly from Mexico, come to Canada each year for five to eight months to work in the country's fields, greenhouses and orchards. They are part of the 200,000 temporary foreign workers who arrive under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. The struggle to win protection and rights for these and Canadian resident farm workers has ramped up since the mid-1990s, when UFCW Canada (the United Food and Commercial Workers) took up the cause.

These workers are vulnerable. Not only are there about 115 deaths and 1,500 serious injuries each year among agriculture workers, but migrant workers risk being blacklisted and not invited back to Canada if they try to organize. That's a big sacrifice, given that six months of work in Canada is equal in pay to three years of work in

Despite the fact that these migrant workers pay income tax, EI and CPP contributions, they are struggling to win the right to organize, particularly in Ontario and Alberta, where agricultural workers are excluded from unionization.

Last fall, UFCW Canada won an Ontario Court of Appeal decision allowing agriculture workers to unionize, a decision that the province is now appealing at the Supreme Court. A large potato farm in Saskatchewan has been certified. And, in Quebec, while the union has two flower greenhouses under contract, it is fighting the Quebec Labour Board, which has blocked field workers from organizing.

"The workers from Mexico are shocked when they arrive here and there is so little protection for them," says Lucy Luna, the organizer who signed up workers at three farms in B.C. "Their expectation is that, in Canada, everything works so well. They can't believe no one is applying and enforcing regulations."

What these workers wouldn't likely know is that Canada has yet to become a signatory to "The Migrant Workers Convention," a binding international treaty arising from the United Nations General Assembly that is meant to protect the rights of all migrant workers and their families. While it's considered one of the UN's key human rights instruments, only 37 countries have ratified the treaty. None of those include the wealthy member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to which Canada belongs.

Luna is also the coordinator of the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) centre in Abbotsford, B.C. It's one of nine centres set up across Canada by the union to help migrant agriculture workers deal with everything from health and safety to workers' compensation issues, wages, benefits, and the enforcement of labour standards. The centres are located in some of Canada's most fertile farm country including Leamington, Bradford, Simcoe and Virgil in Ontario; Quebec's Saint-Remi, Manitoba's Portage La Prairie, B.C.'s Kelowna and, most recently, Surrey, B.C.

Leamington's coordinator Rene Vidal remembers how his centre got set up as the first one in Canada in 2002. "Some agriculture workers had gone on an unofficial strike in the farm community and they ended up staying at the local church where I and others were volunteering. We would meet with them after mass to discuss their issues and help where we could. It wasn't long before the Canadian Labour Congress and the UFCW got involved. Now, at the centre, we help prevent accidents and improve their working conditions. They can come to us and share their fears."

The driving force behind the Agriculture Workers Alliance centre in Saint-Remi, Quebec, began purely by chance according to Andrea Galvez, the centre's current coordinator. She tells the story of a woman named Patricia Perez, who came to Canada about 15 years ago claiming refugee status because of abuses against Mexican indigenous workers. One day in Montreal, Perez met a group of agricultural workers by chance on the street. A year later, they called her when one of their colleagues got injured and the farm owner refused to take the worker to the hospital.

When she came to the farm and tried to help the worker, the owner sent the worker back to Mexico. Incensed at the worker's treatment, Perez made it her business to continue helping these workers, who are so often at an extra disadvantage because they don't speak English. When the union contacted her, P‚rez became the first coordinator of the Saint-Remi centre and was the one responsible for organizing the first three farms in the area.

Today, over 2,000 farm workers depend on the centre to help them with everything from learning how to use an ATM machine to dealing with work-related accidents.

The Leamington, Ontario centre now serves over 5,000 workers, who produce greenhouse vegetables, apples and flowers in an area stretching as far as Windsor, Chatham and Sarnia. Vidal and others were the first to identify that migrant workers were owed parental benefits if they had a child when they were in Canada, something the workers
didn't know was their right. They started going after employers for records of employment and submitting the proper papers. Now, there's a form to make the process easier for workers.

Vidal, who has been taking certification courses with Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, is constantly hopping into his vehicle and heading out to the farms. When he isn't taking workers to hospital when they get injured, he's fighting for proper compensation for them and investigating hazardous conditions on farms.

"Chemicals are one of the biggest hazards," says Vidal. "Some become dust and the workers are breathing that. And, while some farms follow the rules, some don't and end up spraying in areas where people are working.

"While agriculture workers, who have been covered by Ontario's Health and Safety Act since 2006, can refuse to work in unsafe conditions, they're told that they'll be sent back to Mexico if they complain. That's when we need to step in and call for an investigation."

This kind of protection eludes agriculture workers in Alberta, where the death of a farm worker named Kevan Chandler has spawned a campaign to get such workers covered under the province's Occupational Health and Safety Act. An official inquiry recommended such inclusion after Chandler was buried by falling grain while cleaning out a silo at a local feed mill. Because he was a farm worker, there was no investigation by government safety officers and his family was denied basic rights like WCB benefits. And the employer was not held accountable. That case galvanized the Alberta Federation of Labour to join with UFCW Canada to launch the "End the Harvest of Death" campaign.

"About 10,000 agriculture workers in Alberta are excluded from most provisions of the employment standards code, including from minimum wage rates, as well as the labour relations code regarding organizing," says Jason Foster, the federation's director of policy analysis. "Alberta has no intention of opening up the labour code to allow bargaining for anyone, so we feel the battle to get agriculture workers included in the Health And Safety Act has the greatest potential." The labour movement is asking members to send an e-mail to Premier Ed Stelmach, asking him to implement the recommendations of the official inquiry.

Because Alberta produces mostly grain, the farms are not as labour-intensive and therefore the use of migrant workers is fairly low. However, Foster raises another issue. "When most people think of farms, they think of family farms, and there is concern that new regulations may harm families who are trying to eke out a living. They don't realize that the vast majority of farms are owned by a handful of corporations. We need to protect workers in these operations and, at the same time, exclude the small family farms."

Whether it's working with hydraulic carts that can tip on warehouse floors that aren't level, or helping to manoeuvre 70-kilo pine trees in the Fraser Valley, agriculture workers in Canada face hazards and don't always know their rights. "The onus is on the worker to notify workers compensation so, if the worker doesn't do it, it won't happen," says Abbotsford's Luna. "Normally, an employer should send an injured worker to a doctor. But, when the worker, who does not speak English, is asked if the injury is work-related, the translator will often say no.' We're working to change that."

She says that lots of injuries occur during the harvesting of trees. Machine operators, who pluck the trees and put them in buckets, are paid by the piece, so they often work much faster than those workers on foot, who tend to be migrant workers. "On just two farms in Chilliwack, there are about 10 serious injuries per year requiring surgery," says Luna. For non-work-related injuries, the farming community buys private insurance, which covers workers for up to $6,000 in doctor and hospital fees.

Gustavo Mejicanos, the coordinator for the Manitoba Agriculture Workers Alliance in Portage La Prairie, says that workers not only lack adequate training in how to use chemicals, but they must work in unsanitary conditions in the fields, with no access to clean water to even wash their hands before lunch. "They don't know their rights and they're afraid that if they report in sick, they'll be blacklisted by the employer."

Portage La Prairie's Mayfair Farms is the first farm in Canada with migrant workers to be unionized, in June 2008. (The union also has a PIC hog barn in Manitoba under contract.) It took several days for the Mayfair workers to sign up, and another 18 months to complete the union certification. However, it's been hard to organize beyond that farm, according to Mejicanos.

"The farmers' association in Manitoba is totally against unions. Normally, workers receive a letter from the farm inviting them to return the following year. We had one farm where 40 workers, some of whom had worked at the farm for 10 to 15 years, were not invited to come back because the owner was suspicious about the workers wanting a union. Luckily, we were able to help get them assigned to other farms," he says.

Because they are members of a union, UFCW Canada Local 832, the workers at Mayfair Farms receive more equal distribution of hours of work instead of experiencing favouritism by the owners, which used to dictate who worked and when. The workers have access to ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and other personal skills learning, and they now receive overtime pay after 75 hours. These workers make about $500-600 per week, and are paid 15 cents more than the province's minimum wage, according to Mejicanos.

In B.C., Lucy Luna admits that organizing her three farms was a challenge. "These workers do not have residency, nor do they have a house, a car or a driver's licence. They are tied to their employers, making it difficult to meet with them. We used to meet after midnight. They know that unionization is their only chance to have respect at work. They could be punished and never allowed to come back. They risk that because respect is important to them."

In Quebec, according to Saint-Remi's Andrea Galvez, the government and employers have thwarted organizing drives by using a labour code article that says farm workers can only organize if there are three workers employed continuously throughout the year. "That's just not feasible to have workers in the fields from December to January in our climate," says Galvez. "The union has appealed this decision on the basis that it no longer conforms with the Charter that protects the right to bargain." With a decision expected in the fall of 2009, Galvez is hoping the Quebec Labour Relations Board will stop applying the article in the code that has proved to be the stumbling block to certification.

UFCW Canada has waged its largest certification battle in Ontario, the destination for the majority of the migrant workers arriving each year. In 1994, things looked rosy for these workers when the New Democratic governing party grant-ed them bargaining rights with its Agri-cultural Labour Relat-ions Act. The following year, the union certified about 200 workers at a mushroom plant, only to have the new Mike Harris Conservative government rescind the Act.

Following a prolonged court skirmish between the union and the Ontario government, Canada's Supreme Court ordered the province to include agricultural workers under the Labour Relations Act. The province acceded in 2002, but only granted the workers the freedom to "associate," not to bargain collectively.

In addition to setting up five Agriculture Workers Alliance centres across the province, UFCW Canada continued to organize, conducting union certification votes at farms across the province in centres like Leamington, Kingsville, Chatham and Stratford. Years of challenges by the union finally paid off when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the ban on farm unions was a violation of the Charter rights of the province's 100,000 agriculture workers. The province is set to appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court of Canada in a case that will be heard in December 2009.

The union has also taken the fight into international territory. In March of this year, UFCW Canada filed a complaint against the Province of Ontario with the United Nations' International Labour Organization. At the same time, the union unveiled a migrant worker protection pact it made with the Mexican state of Michoacan. Workers arriving from that state will receive enhanced protection, with assistance from the union and the Agriculture Workers Alliance, including getting counselling, in Spanish, about their rights.

"Education is 50 per cent of our jobs, particularly when it comes to working conditions and injuries," says Lucy Luna. B.C. was one of the last provinces to participate in the migrant workers program. Today, 3,000 migrant workers journey to farms in the Fraser Valley, with another 1,200 working in the Okanagan Valley. Because of the long growing season, they arrive in January and the last workers leave in mid-December.

The fact that Canada has not ratified the U.N. Migrant Workers Convention speaks to larger global economic and labour issues. "Globalization is effectively exploiting workers from both ends of the globe and making us fight with each other for the crumbs," says Jojo Geronimo, director of Toronto's Labour Education Centre. "The economic devastation started with free trade zones in southern countries like Mexico and the Philippines, which forced people into sweatshops. They left to come to rich countries in the north and are now being exploited a second time here. Our real enemy is the global corporation."

Agriculture workers streaming into Canada each year are trying to change working conditions for themselves in the

"The migrant workers have a will to organize," states Luna. "The hearts and spirits of the migrant workers are right there. That's what is so exciting. They put their words to work. They refuse to take abuse from employers in a country where they know the rules can, and should, protect them. They, and we, believe we can do better as a

Valerie Dugale is a Toronto-based writer and communications strategist for labour and non-profit organizations.