News  Migrant farm workers seek collective bargaining rights

Seasonal worker status doesn’t guarantee full employee benefits

The right of migrant agricultural workers to collectively bargain for better contracts is at stake in a case before Quebec’s Labour Relations Commission that began hearings Friday.

Seasonal Mexican workers at a farm in Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, about 40 kilometres north of Montreal, applied in July for accreditation to form a collective bargaining unit to secure better working conditions.

During the hearing, five workers spoke about the conditions on the farm, including the long hours without breaks, the volatile temper of their boss, their reasons for migrating to Canada for work, and their lack of job security.

“Workers who come here from Mexico deserve respect,” said Ausencio Flores, who has worked for farm owners Johanne L’Écuyer and Pierre Locas for about five years. “We do not come here so that [the bosses] can insult us. We come here as people, not as animals.”

Flores added that workers entering Canada are threatened by the Mexican Consulate, saying they are told not to complain about anything at work or they will be considered “in conflict” with their contracts and will not be asked back to Canada for the next season.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW), which brought the application forward, is supporting the part-time workers’ collective bargaining efforts.

When asked why he signed a union card with the UFCW, Gabriel Sanchez, another worker on the farm, explained that the language barrier made negotiations challenging.

“We needed someone to help solve our problems and every time we called the Consulate, no one answered,” Sanchez said, speaking through a translator like most of the workers. “I don’t speak the language so it is not possible to talk [with my boss].”

A collective bargaining strategy was opposed by the farm owners, who argued the part-time workers should not receive full employee benefits because the farm is not in operation all year, citing a provision in the Quebec Labour Code that requires at least three employees to work year-round to be eligible for certification.

The UFCW is claiming that the provision in the Code is unconstitutional due to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that guarantees employees the right to collective bargaining, a change from its previous opinion.

Hearings will resume Tuesday and continue into November.