Ottawa – The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with the Ontario government to deny Ontario farm workers the same rights to join unions to bargain collectively as other workers in Ontario. The decision by the highest court in the land is the latest chapter in a decades-long battle to provide statutory labour rights protection and collective bargaining for Ontario’s 80,000 domestic and migrant agriculture workers.
“The Supreme Court of Canada has abandoned agriculture workers in Ontario in their fight for dignity and respect. Undoubtedly the industrial corporate farm lobby and the McGuinty Ontario government will be celebrating that the abuse of farm workers can continue for now,” said Wayne Hanley, the national president of UFCW Canada. “But this is a sad and shocking day for some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in Ontario.”
UFCW Canada is the country’s largest private-sector union and for two decades has led the campaign for justice for agriculture workers. The case in front of the Supreme Court had arrived there in December 2009 because of a successful UFCW Canada charter challenge in the lower courts that the Agriculture Employees Protection Act (AEPA) — the current Ontario legislation that blockades the right of Ontario farm workers to form unions to compel employers to bargain collectively — violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government of Ontario then appealed that decision.
It was the second time in a decade that a UFCW Canada charter challenge of Ontario’s ban on farm unions had come to the Supreme Court. In 2001 the Supreme Court held that Ontario legislation that banned farm workers from organizing violated the Freedom of Association rights of Ontario farm workers.
But in a written decision handed down today, the Supreme Court stood by the province of Ontario, and struck down a 2008 ruling of the Ontario Court of Appeal that whole heatedly sided with the farm workers and the UFCW Canada.
The highest court in the land ruled the AEPA was good enough for farm workers, even though it does not provide statutory guarantees that employers have to bargain or listen to workers at all.
The Supreme Court ruling comes just five months after the ILO, a United Nations agency, found both Canada and Ontario guilty of violating international conventions and the human and labour rights of Ontario agriculture workers through the imposition of the AEPA. Yet, the Supreme Court did not even refer to the ILO findings in its own decision.
.“The ruling of the Supreme Court is a reality, but so is the fact that Canada and Ontario have deservedly become international pariahs because of their attack on the rights of some of the most oppressed workers in the country,” says Hanley, the leader of the union that had brought the issue to the ILO.
“The decision has left workers with AEPA legislation that is practically not workable and provides workers with virtually no protection. It may be the law but there is also the rule of basic human decency. The McGuinty Ontario Liberals can gloat at the expense of abused workers, or they can do the right thing and change the law to grant agriculture workers the same collective bargaining rights as every other worker in the province. To continue with the status quo is indecent and inhumane.”
“The reality is that appealing to the courts has ended. Appealing to the decency and the will of voters is next,” says Hanley. “This is also a political issue. Most Canadians would be appalled at the working and living conditions of tens of thousands of Ontario agriculture workers, many of whom are temporary foreign workers with little effective recourse to their harsh working and living condition. There is an Ontario election coming and we and our allies and members will make this an issue.”
“We are disappointed but we are not deterred,” said Hanley. “Our Agriculture Worker Support centres in Ontario will continue to operate and serve the needs of these workers because it is clear it is not being satisfied. We remain solidly committed to fight for Ontario agriculture workers until they have the same rights and protections like other Ontario workers.”
More than 100,000 UFCW Canada members work and live in Ontario, with more than 250,000 UFCW Canada members working coast to coast in every sector of the food industry from field to table. UFCW Canada represents workers at a number of agriculture operations in British Columbia and Quebec. In association with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, UFCW Canada also operates ten agriculture worker support centres located in Canada’s most intensive agriculture communities.