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Quebec decision advances the rights of migrant workers

Date

2010-05-03

Authors

Jessica Murphy

Abstract

Labour activists across Canada are cheering a ruling by Quebec’s labour relations board granting migrant workers at a small Quebec vegetable farm the right to unionize.

Newspaper title

The Canadian Press

Full text

Labour activists across Canada are cheering a ruling by Quebec’s labour relations board granting migrant workers at a small Quebec vegetable farm the right to unionize.
It is one of many cases – some reaching all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada – that involve the rights of migrant workers.
In mid-April, Quebec’s labour relations board ruled that an article in the province’s labour code that excludes migrant workers from joining a union is unconstitutional.
“ I find it very difficult to believe they’ll be better off unionized. ”— Nunzio Notaro
“From a legal perspective it’s a tremendous victory,” said human rights lawyer Naveen Mehta, who works with the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Quebec’s labour code bars agricultural workers from forming a union unless there are at least three permanent employees who work at the farm year-round, which Mr. Mehta said effectively blocks unionization attempts. “Well, farming is seasonal,” he said, “so you’re not going to have three full-time staff.”
In its ruling, the labour relations board said denying migrant workers the right to unionize is no longer justified.
“There’s no proof agricultural businesses that employ fewer than three workers a year are in a financial situation so dire that it justifies completely negating their freedom of association,” wrote commissioner Robert Côté.
Quebec lawyer Pierre Grenier, who represented the union, agreed that special protections for small farms are anachronistic.
“In Quebec, the government and employers’ argument was that this exception was necessary to protect small family farms,” he said. “[The labour board] said that today, these farms have evolved into specialized companies and significant businesses, so the protection is useless and they no longer need special consideration.”
Nunzio Notaro, president of the association representing 500 Quebec farms that works in concert with the federal government to recruit foreign workers, said that’s simply not the case. “Seventy-five per cent of our members employ fewer than 10 people,” he said. “The economic situation of small farms is precarious.”
Mr. Notaro’s association, which meets annually with representatives from Mexico and Guatemala to negotiate employment contracts, said both the Canadian and foreign governments work hard to ensure migrant workers are well treated in Canada.
He also noted workers are guaranteed minimum wage and are entitled to a range of social programs.
“I find it very difficult to believe they’ll be better off unionized,” he said. “We have a hard time understanding what more they need.”
He cited a 2009 survey by the Quebec labour standards board suggesting the majority of farms employing foreign workers respected the province’s labour codes.
But the survey also noted workers had a spotty understanding of their rights and were wary of complaining for fear of losing their employment.
Mr. Mehta said migrant workers are too easily exploited by questionable recruiters and dishonest employers. “You can’t have a system where those who are the most vulnerable have the least number of legislative resources to protect them,” he said. “But that’s what’s happening with migrant workers and migrant farm workers.”
Both Mr. Notaro’s association and the Quebec government are considering appealing the ruling and wouldn’t comment on it directly. The farm owners in question would not comment either, referring media queries to Mr. Notaro’s organization.
Meanwhile, workers at the farm about 45 kilometres northwest of Montreal involved in the case are now allowed to seek union accreditation.
The push for unionization among farm workers is not new in Canada’s courts.
A campaign launched by the United Food and Commercial Workers in the 1990s ended up before the Supreme Court, which in 2001 ordered Ontario to allow agricultural workers the freedom to associate, though the legislation stopped short of allowing them collective bargaining rights.
The union is now before the Supreme Court again, challenging Ontario’s legislation.
Two other demands launched by the union in Quebec in 2008 are still before the commission. Mr. Grenier said more demands for accreditation may be launched this year.
According to figures from the federal government, some 17,000 workers from Mexico alone worked in Canada in 2009. Guatemala and various Caribbean countries also supply labour. Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia employ the bulk of the workers but most Canadian provinces participate in the program.
In Quebec, temporary foreign workers are also branching out from agriculture and are employed on golf courses, in landscaping and in cleaning and sanitation companies.
Across Canada, they often also work in the food services and hospitality industry.
In 2009, a parliamentary immigration committee looking into the situation of temporary foreign workers found there were over 200,000 working in Canada annually in various sectors.
The federal government also found that the agricultural sector faces labour shortages despite the growing number of foreign workers employed in Canada under the seasonal agricultural program – from 8,000 in 2003 to 29,0291 in 2008.
Whatever their status, Mr. Notaro noted these workers play a key role in the provincial economy.
“If you cut these workers, by tomorrow, there’d be no agriculture in Quebec,” he said.

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Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers

Content types

Policy analysis

Target groups

Public awareness

Geographical focuses

Quebec

Languages

English