“It’s a story of sadness. It’s a story of tragedy,” says Raj Chouhan of the working conditions on British Columbia farms in the 1970s and 1980s. Now a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Burnaby-Edmonds, Chouhan was born in Punjab, India. He emigrated to Canada as a young man after answering a newspaper advertisement for farmworkers in the Fraser Valley. What he saw when he arrived shocked him: workers housed in cattle barns with no toilets or running water, daily exposure to pesticides, and unguarded equipment. Wages were low, hours were long and safety regulations and inspections were non-existent.
“At the same time, it’s a story of success because people were willing to stand up,” continues Chouhan, who went on to found the Canadian Farm Workers Union, the first agricultural union in the country’s history. Between 2008 and 2010, after a long and difficult organizing effort, UFCW 1518 unionized migrant farmworkers at three greenhouses in Surrey, Abbotsford and Mission. But despite some inroads gained by unions, working conditions in British Columbia’s agricultural sector have not improved much over the decades. International Migrants Day, marked each year on December 18, acknowledges that much more needs to be done to improve the plight of migrants. The United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers describes migration as a global phenomenon, highlighting the demand for migrant workers to perform low wage, low skill work in developed countries and sets a moral standard for the promotion of migrant rights.
In Canada, migrant workers from Latin America began arriving in 2004 under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), and more recently under the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. “Migrant workers who come to Canada on temporary work permits are supposed to be treated the same as any other Canadian, with the same labour protections and access to health care. But the reality is they’re not,” says UFCW Canada’s Felix Martinez.
Martinez knows firsthand what he is talking about: he is the whistleblower who exposed the Mexican Consulate in BC for blacklisting migrant workers suspected of being “union sympathizers.” “Migrant workers are some of the most precarious workers. They have no autonomy from their employer, no connection to the community outside the farm, and little access to transportation, health care or legal assistance,” Martinez explains. “And if they challenge the boss or make any waves, their employer can send them back to their home country.” In 2014, the BC Labour Relations Board ruled against Mexico.
UFCW 1518 and UFCW Canada continue to be leaders in the fight for fairness for migrant workers, most recently participating in a multi-stakeholder pilot project called the Migrant Workers Support Network, led by the federal government. Its goal is to find ways to improve working conditions, workplace health and safety, access to health care and improved housing; if successful, it will be implemented across the country. “Part of our advocacy on this project is to push for open work permits and an easier path to residency,” says Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Johnson, noting that under the current TFW program, a migrant worker’s employment is tied to one employer. If they are fired or mistreated, they cannot seek employment elsewhere in Canada. This situation is ripe for abuse, as the case of the Mexican Consulate clearly shows. “Migrant workers leave their families and their lives behind and come to Canada to work grueling jobs no one else wants. Why would our government deny them residency and the chance at a better life?”
UFCW is supporting migrant workers in other ways, including through the collective bargaining process. In Alberta, UFCW 401 negotiated collective agreement language that requires employers who hire temporary foreign workers to help them apply to become permanent citizens. Employers are also required to help temporary foreign workers meet residency requirements, including teaching them English. Many of the union’s 32,000 members are migrant workers who have become permanent residents or are in the process.
The United Latinos of UFCW supports locals in their efforts to organize and communicate with Latinx members in the United States. It also provides financial support for UFCW members who have applied for US citizenship through its New American Citizenship Fund. They hosted their executive meeting in Calgary last August, where President Kim Novak was a featured speaker. UFCW Canada offers the Migrant Workers Scholarship, which awards 20 scholarships of $500 each to those working in Canada under the TFW program, including seasonal agricultural workers, and their families.
“It’s critically important that we support migrant workers in their efforts to be treated with fairness and respect, to become permanent residents of Canada, and to join a union,” says President Kim Novak. “The advocacy of UFCW at the local and national level has enhanced the rights of these vulnerable workers who give up so much to come work in our country, and contribute so much through their labour.”