MONTREAL — Labour activists across Canada are cheering a recent ruling by the Quebec labour relations board that granted migrant workers at a small Quebec vegetable farm the right to unionize.
It’s one of many cases — some reaching all the way to Canada’s top court — that involve migrant worker rights across the country.
In mid-April, the Quebec labour relations board ruled as unconstitutional, an exception in the province’s labour code that excludes migrant workers from joining a union.
“From a legal perspective it’s a tremendous victory,” said human rights lawyer Naveen Mehta, who works with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
Quebec’s code bars agricultural workers from forming a union unless there are at least three permanent employees who work at the farm year-round, which Mehta said effectively blocks unionization attempts.
“With the legislation as it is, it still hinders farm workers from unionizing because the decision required three full-time staff. Well farming is seasonal so you’re not going to have three full-time staff.”
The commission pegged its decision on the article, suggesting the exception was no longer financially 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 Cote.
Quebec lawyer Pierre Grenier, who represented the union in this file, agreed that special protections for small farms were anachronistic.
“In Quebec, the government and employers’ argument was that this exception was necessary to protect small family farms,” he said.
“It 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.”
But 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.”
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.
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 Notaro’s association and the Quebec government are considering appealing the ruling and wouldn’t comment directly on the labour relations board ruling.
The farm owners in question would not comment either, referring media queries instead to Notaro’s organization.
Meanwhile, the workers at the Quebec farm, about 45 kilometres northwest of Montreal, are now allowed to seek accreditation.
The push for unionization among farm workers is not new in Canada’s courts.
The UFCW launched a campaign in the 1990s, pitting the workers against provincial governments and the agricultural industry.
The fight ended up before Canada’s top court in 2001, when Supreme Court ruled against the Ontario government.
Ontario was forced to allow the agricultural workers freedom to associate, though the legislation stopped short of allowing them collective bargaining rights.
The union is now before the Supreme Court again, challenging that new legislation.
And two other demands launched by the union in Quebec in 2008 are still before the commission. Grenier said more demands for accreditation may be launched this year.
According to figures from the federal government, some 17,000 Mexicans alone worked in Canada in 2009. Guatemala and various Caribbean countries also supply labour. Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. 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 its increased reliance on foreign workers under the seasonal agricultural program — from 8,000 in 2003 to 29,0291 in 2008.
Whatever their status, 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.