UFCW Canada Fights for Migrant Workers’ Rights

by Paul Garver

On the occasion of Labor Day, which is celebrated today both in the USA and in Canada, I have reports on two exemplary organizing efforts in Canada from which American union activists might learn.
The Canadian branch of the United Food & Commericial Workers Union (UFCW Canada) has committed itself to a sustained effort to improve conditions for migrant agricultural workers in Canada. Every year Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program imports tens of thousands of agricultural laborers from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South Asia. UFCW Canada national president Wayne Hanley describes the TFW as “the federal government’s Exploitation Express that delivers migrant workers to Canada as a vulnerable and disposable work force. The collusion between the farm lobby and the governments is not only appalling, but an assault on the fights and safety of precarious workers who are fired and shipped out if they voice any concerns.”

The UFCW has won a number of legal challenges that have extended the rights of migrant workers in some provinces to bargain collectively and to be covered by health and safety legislation. Workers at some farms are now unionized by the UFCW and others are fighting for a first union contract. In such cases the temporary agricultural migrant workers have the right to seek permanent resident status (as do migrant and refugee meat workers in Canadian plants organized by the UFCW.

However the large majority of temporary migrant workers have no safeguards against arbitrary exploitation by the employers to which they are tied. In fact employers can simply decide to fire temporary workers at will and compel them to return to their countries of origin at the worker’s own expense without any recourse whatever. Workers who are injured on the job (agricultural workers have the highest fatality rate of any occupation), become sick, or simply fight for their rights or attempt to join a union can simply be disposed of in this fashion.

For instance, Honduran workers recruited under the TFW program this year were required to sign an employment contract that states that “Canada has no power to intervene or ensure the contract is enforced” in cases of dismissal.

The long-term commitment of UFCW Canada to organizing the temporary migrant workers can be seen in its support for the Agricultural Workers Alliance, which has opened offices at nine sites to provide legal and practical support for agricultural workers. The union also has formed alliances with migrant workers advocates in their home countries. For example it joined a protest organized by the Association of Guatemalans United for our Rights at the Canadian embassy in Guatemala City on September 1 demanding the reinstatement of Guatemalan migrant workers who were fired for fighting for their legal rights in Canada.

For more information, visit the UFCW Canada web-site. See also a detailed UFCW Report on the conditions of migrant agricultural workers

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