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Spotlight placed on condition of migrant workers

Evan Johnston

February 25, 2012

The tragic death of 10 Peruvian farm workers in Hampstead, Ontario, has put the spotlight on the working conditions of migrant farm workers all across Canada.

In the last decade, the size of the temporary foreign labour market has grown from 100,000 to more than 250,000, and in spite of how large this sector of the Canadian economy has grown, little attention has been paid to the precarious working conditions that these workers face.

Justicia for Migrant Workers (J4MW), who have been at the forefront for calling for an inquest into their deaths, have pointed out that working conditions for migrant farm workers generally consist of 12 to 15 hour shifts without overtime or holiday pay, a denial of breaks, unfair paycheque deductions, and the use of dangerous chemicals with no safety equipment, protection or training. Additionally, one should add to this list that the van the 13 Peruvian workers were traveling in, the 15-passenger van, is considered by many to be a “death trap”.

For nearly 20 years, the struggle for the rights of migrant workers in Ontario has been an uphill battle against the corporate agriculture lobby. In 1994, the NDP government passed the Agricultural Labour Relations Act (ALRA), which gave trade union and bargaining rights to agricultural workers. However, when Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservatives were elected in 1995, they immediately repealed the ALRA and passed the Labour Relations and Employment Statute Law Amendment Act (LRESLAA) in its place—prompting the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada (UFCW) to take the government to court.

After numerous court cases and subsequent legislation, the Supreme Court of Canada sided in April 2011 with the Ontario government’s current ban on farm unions under the current Agricultural Employees Protection Act (AEPA), ruling that the provincial ban was constitutional. However, the right of agricultural workers to unionize cannot be divorced from the struggle against their exploitation on Ontario farms, and will be crucial to preventing the deaths of any future migrant workers.

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