The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is taking advantage of a current review of workplace safety in Ontario to raise awareness about migrant farm workers, especially those who come to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).
More than 17,000 people from Mexico, and several thousand others from Caribbean nations, come to Canada each year to work on farms, for up to eight months.
Stan Raper, UFCW agriculture worker co-ordinator, says they are not in the country long enough to collect public health benefits, with the exception of Saskatchewan, which has extended them access to provincial healthcare. In all other provinces, employers are responsible for providing private health coverage under the terms of the SAWP agreement.
He says that can leave workers at a disadvantage.
“The employer sends them to their doctor in a small rural community who says, ‘No, that guy is fine’ and then they call us saying, ‘I’m not fine but the doctor couldn't understand me because I only speak Spanish’,” he explains.
Health and safety — whether on the job or related to healthcare — continues to be an issue for migrant farm workers, according to Raper.
He recently met with the independent panel investigating labour and workplace safety and enforcement laws in Ontario. The panel was initiated following a rash of construction deaths and will report back to the provincial labour ministry this fall with recommendations.
Raper says while all farm workers have been covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act since 2006, the five regulations leave a lot of unanswered questions that he would like to see addressed.
“They have the right to refuse dangerous work, for example, but there’s no regulation behind it for unguarded equipment, heat stress, weather, lightning strikes, pesticide exposure, proper spraying techniques — there's nothing,” he says.
Andy Neufeld, communications director with the UFCW in B.C., adds that migrant farm workers remain particularly vulnerable across the country.
“These are workers who are treated as second-class citizens and they simply do not enjoy the same kind of rights that Canadian workers do,” says Neufeld. “That fact, unfortunately, extends itself to the health and safety of these workers.”
He says unions have not been as successful at gaining benefits for migrant farm workers for two reasons. First, the majority are not represented by unions. UFCW has reached contracts with two farms in B.C., a few in Quebec and a hog plant in Manitoba, but it is still illegal for farm workers to bargain collectively in Alberta and Ontario.
Raper adds that even where unions have been successful at reaching a contract, they haven’t been able to make many gains.
“Employers are telling us they have to compete provincially with other farmers that aren’t unionized but they’re also competing nationally and globally,” he says. “So trying to negotiate any kind of better benefits on their behalf is very difficult.”
Raper says the other roadblock to improving health and safety for migrant farm workers is time. It took two years to certify Sidhu and Sons Nursery in Mission, B.C.
“Now we’re trying to negotiate a collective agreement with a workforce that the majority of them aren’t there anymore,” he says.
Raper says there have been some gains with rights to file a grievance, seniority and recall, no repatriation without just cause, and the requirement to have a health and safety committee. Still, he says it’s not enough.
“Talking about a health and safety committee on a farm? We still have a long, long way to go,” he says. “We’re starting from 1947. This is as basic as basic can be.”
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