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Setback for Historic Effort to Unionize Guest Farm Workers

Shuffled work force votes to decertify UFCW.

Tom Sandborn 29 Jun 2009TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn is a Tyee contributing editor whose reporting focuses on labour and health issues.

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UFCW organizer Lucy Luna. Photo by Tom Sandborn.

Foreign crop pickers in Surrey made history last summer when they voted to unionize. Labour activists sensed a new pool of workers was now ripe for organizing.

But those gains are on the verge of being wiped away as labourers at Greenway Farms have filed to withdraw from the union certification won by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

If the de-certification attempt is successful in hearings slated for June 30 at the LRB, it will mark a set-back for the UFCW's multi-year drive to unionize agricultural workers in Canada. Last summer's win for the UFCW marked the first time in B.C. that migrant workers, brought into Canada as temporary guest workers under the controversial Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), had successfully joined a Canadian union.

However, most of the Mexican workers who supported the union drive a year ago reportedly have not been brought back this season, creating a mostly new and much more local work force at the farm.

Pro-union workers weeded out: organizer

Union organizer Lucy Luna told the Tyee that while Greenway had employed 35 Mexican workers through the federal guest worker program last year, only 12 migrant workers had been called back for this season, with the Greenway workforce topped up by hiring 28 new local Indo-Canadian workers.

Luna told the Tyee that she began hearing rumours last year among the Fraser Valley's migrant Mexican workers that employers would use their control of which workers get called back for a second season under the program to weed out union supporters and thwart drives to organize the Fraser Valley fields.

Luna said it was her impression that this selective anti-union call back procedure was being implemented at Greenway and at two other local farms where the union made headway last season.

Repeated calls from The Tyee to Greenway Farms administrator Bill Singh Sandhu were not returned.

Mark Thompson, professor emeritus at UBC's Sauder School of Business, and co-author of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper "Cultivating Farmworker Rights" told the Tyee he was not surprised to hear the SAWP might be used to select workers who were anti-union for B.C. farms.

"I kind of figured that would happen," Thompson told The Tyee. "The system allows the employer to select employees for re-call and to explicitly de-select workers not wanted for re-employment, and there is no mechanism in the system that would allow the employee to resolve the issue. The contracts are totally one-sided."

Threats to pro-union workers alleged

Luna, originally from Mexico herself, has been working for the UFCW in its Agricultural Workers Alliance outreach program offices in Abbotsford since 2007. In an interview conducted in the union program's tiny, threadbare offices in an Abbotsford shopping mall, she said that her program serves between 50 and 60 farm workers a week, helping them with government forms, medical appointments and other needs. She said her office fields up to 500 phone calls a week.

"Many of the workers tell us that they have had their job security threatened if they talk to us," she said.

Last season, she said, Guatemalan migrant workers who attended a Spanish language church service with her were fired and sent back to their home country by a farm employer who learned the employees had associated with her.

Still, many workers take the risk of contacting her and her working partner Ravi Dhindsa in person or on the phone, and half a dozen farm workers arrived at the office looking for help when the Tyee visited for an afternoon in mid-June.

The Abbotsford office is one of nine in Canada funded by the UFCW to conduct outreach, worker aid and organizing efforts among Canada's agricultural workers. The outreach program was founded in the 1990s with a single office and the newest office, in Surrey, opened this year.

In addition to providing workers with direct help through the AWA offices, the UFCW has played a lead role in pursuing changes in the legal regime governing unionization in Canadian fields, most notably in the 2001 Dunmore vs. Ontario ruling at the Supreme Court and last year's Fraser vs. Ontario ruling, both of which recognized significant legal rights for farm workers seeking to organize.

Long drive in Fraser Valley to organize migrant workers

Farmworkers have long been seen as one of the most difficult workforces for unions to organize, and were until recently excluded from many of the protections provided by Canadian labour law.

The UFCW's attempt to organize B.C. farm workers is not the first such effort. In 1980 the Canadian Farmworkers Union was formed in B.C., kicking off more than a half decade of vigorous organizing efforts among Fraser Valley farm workers.

Although the CFU was not, in the long run, successful in building a unionized workforce in B.C. fields, its campaigns helped highlight the lack of health and safety protection for the province's farm workers and led in the early 1990s to adoption of improved pesticide and other safety regulations for the agriculture sector under an NDP government.

Raj Chouhan, who helped lead the Canadian Farmworkers Union in the 1980s, is now an NDP MLA and opposition critic on labour matters. "The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program is not designed to help farm workers in the long run," he told The Tyee. "If workers have a dispute with the employer, they can be sent home, or not recalled in the next season. The government has clearly allowed some employers to use this program to discourage unionization."

A federal media spokeswoman with Human Resources and Social Development Canada, which administers the SAWP, responded belatedly to Tyee requests for comment on whether the program was being abused by employers who allegedly use its provisions to de-select potential union supporters. In an email sent to the Tyee office after this story had been filed, spokeswoman Julie Hahn indicated that any selective re-hiring of anti-union workers was not the responsibility of her department.

"It is ultimately the responsibility of the Mexican or Caribbean country's government to recruit and place the workers. This is done in consultation with the individual workers themselves, since HRSDC/Service Canada does not provide any input regarding the determination of which workers are chosen to participate in the SAWP or their placement."

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