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Creating Centres for Migrants' Universes

Away from fields, the UFCW finds other ways to connect with temporary farm workers. Its support offices buzz.

Justin Langille 16 Feb 2012TheTyee.ca

Justin Langille is a Vancouver-based photographer and reporter, who's published with The Tyee, Xtra and Briarpatch. To carry out this series, he received a $5,000 grant from the Tyee Investigative Reporting Fellowships, funded by donations from readers. To learn more about the Tyee Reporting Fellowships, go here.

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Workers socialize at Lucy Luna's AWA office in Abbotsford this summer. Photo: Justin Langille.

[Editor's note: This is the fourth article in a Tyee reader-funded series looking at B.C. agriculture's reliance on migrant "guest" workers, who those workers are, and what challenges they face. Find the rest of the series so far here.]

The intersection of King George Boulevard and 72nd Avenue in Surrey is a hub of activity on a sunny Saturday morning in June. Traffic flows steadily in and out of adjacent strip malls. The CIBC branch on the corner is busy, but the Surrey Agricultural Workers Alliance (AWA) office housed above the bank is busier still.

We are buzzed in through a locked side door and walk up two flights of stairs into a room full of urgent conversation. Men relay work issues and personal concerns to volunteers or chief organizer Raul Gatica, who sports a beret and minds the room while talking on the phone. Others sit with arms crossed, waiting for counsel.

Most of the migrant farm workers here today are filing Canadian income tax returns from last year's work in B.C. They want cash from the return, but they also want "everything to be the way it's supposed to be," says Irma, a visiting accountant. An unblemished tax record is an assurance for them, another reason to be allowed back to work in B.C. next year, she tells us. These men might drop in again to apply for parental benefits (an EI benefit workers are entitled to receive while they work), or for advice in resolving a dispute with their employer before the season is over.

Gatica and his volunteers operate the centre, but the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union funds it.

Diego, a tall, brawny man in his mid-30s from the western Mexican state of Nayarit remembers helping to arrange the furniture in the centre when Gatica and the UFCW first opened in 2009. For him, Gatica and the centre are invaluable resources. If anyone on his farm became ill or had an accident, they would come here first.

"We know that we can find support in him," says Diego.

Competing to help

Among Catholic and Christian churches, employers and consular officials, the UFCW is another option for migrant agricultural workers seeking support in B.C. farming regions.

Formed when major retail clerks and butchers unions merged in 1979, the UFCW boasts 250,000 members in retail, food processing and service sectors across Canada today, and 26,000 members in B.C.

The first AWA resource centre for agricultural workers opened in Leamington, Ont. in 2002; nationwide, a total of 10 centres are spread through B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Including Gatica's Surrey office, there are three in B.C. An Abbotsford office serves the Fraser Valley, and a Kelowna-based organizer provides service to the entire Okanagan and parts of Alberta.

Despite outreach efforts, the UFCW has only 11 certifications involving migrant farm workers in Canada (nine in Quebec and two in B.C.). In Alberta and Manitoba, the union represents migrant workers at meat plants, but not on farms. Workers we've spoken with either feel they have no need to join the union, or consider it a threat to their employment.

However, the centre retains a steady client base.

During the growing season, 40 to 60 workers a day will come to this Surrey location; more might call or receive a home visit. In total, close to 700 visit during a season, but the centre claims to provide service to 1,200 workers year.

Centres give organizers "an edge in the first moment, in order to get confident with the workers," says Gatica. Helping a worker open a bank account can lead to discussions about labour rights and what the UFCW has to offer.

"To be unionized is one level of organization… it is not all the levels. It's a process," he adds.

'They don't exist for nothing'

The altruism of the UFCW's outreach centres doesn't escape criticism from employers.

AWA centres provide free services, but the British Columbia Agriculture Council (BCAC) says the union's motivations are financial.

"Their goal is to get [workers] away from the consulate, to be their representative and charge them dues," Rhonda Driediger, chair of the BCAC says of the UFCW, over the phone from her family's berry farm near Langley.

"They don't exist for nothing. Somebody has to pay the bills and the salaries and everything else, and the only way that's done is through union dues."

Driediger admits foreign workers have been a boon to B.C. farmers, who provide airfare, housing (with a maximum rent of $632 for a whole contract stay) and a standard wage ($9.28 in 2010) in exchange for predictable labour costs and a flexible workforce. That's why the BCAC works with the Mexican consulate to address worker needs and ensure employers are following guidelines, she says. In her opinion, third-party advocates like the UFCW aren't necessary.

"If we do find the odd person, we come down on them as an industry as hard as anybody else does," says Driediger.

"I don't want my workers treated like trash and I don't want anyone else's workers treated like trash either."

Okanagan College instructor and filmmaker Marc Arellano profiled migrant orchard workers in Strange Fruit, his 2010 documentary about the changing fruit industry in the Okanagan. He thinks union membership can be contrary to the financial goals of workers, especially those who are landowners or farmers themselves in Mexico.

"They felt that it's just another form of exploitation or a way they would be limited," said Arellano. "For [workers], it's all about trying to maximize how much money they can earn in a very short period of time. So they see [unionizing] as more rules and restrictions to being able to send that remittance back home to Mexico."

'Good will'

The campaign to support migrant farm workers is not a moneymaker, according to the UFCW.

"This is very much a gesture of good will as much as anything; it comes from a real necessity, a real need from migrant workers," says Andy Neufeld, communications director for UFCW 1518 in New Westminster.

"It has not been from a perspective of business unionism."

The union wouldn't provide budget specifics, but Neufeld said that any dues collected from migrant farm workers are "a pittance" compared to money spent on resource centres and legal proceedings with the LRB.

And Stan Raper, national coordinator of the AWA, notes that "unionized farms in Quebec are still operating after a number of years with no strikes, bankruptcies or closures. And those workers make 10 or 15 cents above the minimum wage."

Earning dues from B.C. migrant workers may not matter to the UFCW, but in its national campaign to unionize migrant workers, B.C. is "critical," Raper says.

Ontario employs the majority of migrant farm workers in Canada, but on April 29 the Supreme Court of Canada decided in favour of a law restricting farm workers, domestic and migrant, from collective bargaining -- despite a UFCW challenge. "In provinces where workers have the right to join a union and bargain collectively, we need to make sure we're moving those pieces," says Raper.

The UFCW maintains collective agreements with workers at two B.C. farms (Floralia Plant Growers in Abbotsford and Sidhu and Sons Nurseries in Mission) despite employer applications to decertify. Failing to unionize more workers would let the momentum gained from their most recent victory at Sidhu and Son's Nurseries in Mission fade, says Lucy Luna, organizer at the Abbotsford AWA centre.

"[It was] a huge victory, it cost a lot. It caused a lot of people's pain and suffering, so we better take that great opportunity."

"We need to do something to prove that workers really want that voice."

Tipping point

New victories might be needed, but old battles aren't over.

In separate complaints filed with the B.C. Labour Relations Board (LRB) this past April, the UFCW alleges the Ministry of Labour in Mexico and the Mexican consulate in Vancouver blacklisted workers from Floralia and Sidhu, preventing them from returning to work in Canada.

The consulate denies the allegations.

If workers want to join a union, "they have the right to do so, but it has to be the worker's choice, under the assumption they have to really know and understand what they are getting into," says Estela Garcia León, vice-consul at the Mexican consulate in Vancouver.

"The worker could be injured. The worker might need to go home, or have personal issues that really need to be looked after. Is the union going to have all this support for them?"

In an Oct. 18 Vancouver Sun article, the union said as many as 100 unionized migrant farm workers from Floralia and Sidhu combined have been prevented from returning to work in Canada, not just the single worker named earlier. On Feb. 1, 2012, as LRB hearings over the blacklisting charges against the consulate neared, Mexico had an earlier request for state immunity from the hearings granted by the LRB.

Despite this, hearings to examine the role that both farms played in the alleged blacklistings will proceed. Those involving Sidhu and Sons are scheduled to begin on Feb. 20.

Workers are already hesitant to organize, but if the LRB doesn't decide in the union's favour, it could have devastating "chill effect" on their effort to organize migrant farm workers in B.C., says Neufeld.

"It's the tipping point as to whether or not workers are going to end up joining the union."

Help, but not the credit

The mid-summer sun hits its zenith as forms are completed and groups of workers leave to get lunch or take the bus home. A slight young man in his early 20s remains, talking to Gatica to find out why he wasn't sent his final paycheque last year.

This is Tomas's second six-month season of farm work in Canada. This year, he finds himself in a greenhouse growing chard and spinach close to Surrey; last year he worked in Alberta. At the end of last season, his employer said he would send his final paycheque to him in Mexico, but Tomas never received it.

"I came here so [Gatica] can tell the patron to be responsible for the money he owes me; so he can pay me," says Tomas.

Talking to Tomas's employer from last year will be a first step, says Gatica. If the employer won't pay Tomas, they may take it to the B.C. LRB, something Gatica doesn't want to do. Only Tomas's current employer can fire him, but Gatica doesn't want the Mexican government or the consulate to know the UFCW is helping.

It's a common story here; one of the most common, according to Gatica. Tomas will keep returning for Gatica and his staff's help, because the money he's seeking doesn't belong only to him.

"We come to work for our families… for them to eat," he says before excusing himself abruptly.

Perhaps we could talk on another occasion? Tomas asks suddenly. His co-workers are leaving for lunch and he doesn't want to be left behind. He doesn't know how to get back to the farm where he lives and works.

[Tags: Labour and Industry.]  [Tyee]

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