UFCW Canada

UFCW Canada

January 12, 2006 16:33 ET

UFCW Canada wins right to represent migrant agricultural workers

UFCW Canada wins right to represent migrant agricultural workers in Charter challenge to Employment Insurance program discrimination Attention: Agriculture Editor, City Editor, Food/Beverage Editor, News Editor, Government/Political Affairs Editor TORONTO, ONTARIO--(CCNMatthews - Jan. 12, 2006) - The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW Canada) has made legal history by becoming the first union ever to win the right to challenge the government on behalf of unorganized workers whose rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being violated but who do not have the means or the opportunity to seek redress through the courts.

The case involves a UFCW Canada application challenging as unconstitutional the federal government's Employment Insurance (EI) program's historic and ongoing discrimination against migrant agricultural workers. Migrant workers are required to pay the same EI premiums as other workers in Canada but are, by law, ineligible for basic EI benefits.

Every year, nearly 18,000 workers from Mexico and Caribbean countries are brought to Canada under the federal government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). They typically are paid minimum wage and many are subject to working and housing conditions that Canadian residents would find intolerable. The workers are admitted under temporary work permits that require them to return to their home countries after their employers either fire them or have no more work for them. The fact that they are then no longer resident in Canada deprives them of the right to basic EI unemployment benefits.

"It is shameful that the Canadian government cynically collects millions of dollars a year in so called 'insurance premiums' from these impoverished, vulnerable and often poorly treated workers when they have no real opportunity to obtain basic EI benefits," said Michael J. Fraser, National Director of UFCW Canada.

"Taking money from them under false pretences, which is what the EI program does, is something UFCW Canada believes most Canadians would find abhorrent and unworthy of our country's values, on top of the fact that it violates the Constitution."

Since 1991 UFCW Canada has, at its own cost, directly supplied services and counselling to seasonal agricultural migrant workers by providing health and safety training, translation assistance, ESL classes, legal assistance (compensation, insurance, etc.), and recreational activities through five Migrant Workers Information Centres located in Ontario and Quebec.

UFCW Canada calculates that in 2001 alone, migrant agricultural workers paid $3.4 million in EI premiums and their employers paid a further $4.8 million. This $8.2 million was collected without any real prospect that the workers would collect a dime in basic EI benefits.

In November 2003 the union applied to the courts to declare this practice a violation of Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees every individual in Canada "equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination" including discrimination on race, national or ethnic origin.

The Attorney General of Canada had sought to deny "public interest standing" in the matter to UFCW Canada, which would have quashed the union's efforts to legally enforce the workers' Charter rights.

In a well-reasoned decision that potentially opens the door to others seeking justice for disadvantaged groups through the courts, Justice T. Ducharme of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has denied the Attorney General's motion to stop the union's EI challenge and awarded costs to UFCW Canada.

In his decision, Justice Ducharme says that UFCW Canada has demonstrated in numerous ways over the course of several years that it has "a real and continuing interest in the well-being of foreign migrant agricultural workers [and] particular experience, expertise and success in representing the legal rights of agricultural workers, including SAWP workers, under the Charter and can bring that expertise to the presentation of legal issues in this case."

Justice Ducharme's decision means the union's latest court action on behalf of the migrant workers can and will proceed.

"If the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to have any meaning at all," states Michael J. Fraser, "it must apply equally to everyone in Canada. The Supreme Court has already ruled on this in our previous action on behalf of Ontario agricultural workers [Dunmore v. Ontario] and we hope that the federal government, in this EI case, will finally acknowledge that it too must abide by the Constitution."

-30- /For further information: The UFCW Canada 2004 National Report on the Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada is available in PDF format. Go to ufcw.ca/publications_main.cgi and you can find the report under the “Organizing Agricultural Workers Publications" menu, along with other articles about the challenges faced by agricultural workers in Canada./ IN: AGRICULTURE, FOOD, JUSTICE, LABOUR, POLITICS

Contact Information

  • Stan Raper, UFCW CANADA
    Primary Phone: 416-675-1104 ext. 232
    Secondary Phone: 416-523-0937
    E-mail: sraper@ufcw.ca