Agriculture Workers in Canada - History Timeline

UFCW Canada plays a significant role in organizing and providing assistance to agricultural workers across Canada. While governments ignore the plight of agricultural workers, UFCW Canada has always been and continues to be committed to improving the working conditions of all agricultural workers.

Over the past three decades, UFCW, through its Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) centres, has provided advocacy and support efforts to tens of thousands of domestic and migrant farm workers in Ontario, through fixed and mobile support centres.

Assistance is provided to workers in their own language (through drop-in visits, phone calls, and outreach locations) on issues such as employer abuse; unsafe housing and working conditions; overcharging for rent or demanding recruitment fees; unilateral repatriations; and other threats or actions of employer reprisal.

Today, in association with UFCW Canada, the AWA has grown into the largest national support organization for both foreign and domestic agriculture workers. Outside of Canada, UFCW Canada and the AWA have built an ongoing dialogue with sending governments, including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Thailand, and Jamaica.

Canada has seen a continuous expansion of the migrant and temporary foreign work force in corporate agriculture under federal programs that deliver migrant workers to employers, and then essentially abandon them to fend for themselves.

It is an employer-driven system, assisted by the government, where many workers must accept danger and exploitation if they want to work in Canada. If they raise concerns, they are typically deported without a hearing or right of appeal and blacklisted from ever returning. It is our experience in Ontario, that the vulnerability of both domestic and migrant workers to employer abuse is directly reinforced by their inability to organize and compel employers to collectively bargain in good faith.

Ontario is Canada’s largest agricultural centre. The evidence is clear to us, and to the tens of thousands of agricultural workers we have had direct contact in Ontario, that their ability to organize is hobbled by provincial legislation. This has been the case since the creation of the Ontario Labour Relations Act, except for a very brief period in the 1990s.

In 1993, the Agricultural Labour Relations Act ("ALRA") was proclaimed, giving Ontario agricultural workers the right to join a union of their choice and bargain collectively. Prior to the passage of the ALRA, the government consulted with UFCW Canada as the principal workers' representative. The ALRA was unanimously recommended by a ministerial advisory committee which included agricultural owner organizations, such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and UFCW Canada.

A definition of the family farm was also agreed upon in the ALRA and UFCW Canada publicly stated that it was not interested in organizing family farms. The UFCW intended to focus efforts on corporate agribusiness operations, such as factory-style hatcheries, mushroom farms, livestock feedlots, and the massive greenhouses in the Leamington area.

The ALRA was proclaimed into law to extend the right to bargain collectively to agricultural workers while at the same time eliminating the historical barrier which discriminated against agricultural workers in Ontario.

In early 1995, after a difficult campaign, UFCW Canada Local 1993 became the first ALRA-certified bargaining agent, representing approximately 200 workers at Highline Produce, a year-round mushroom factory in Leamington employing mainly immigrants, many of whom could not speak or read English. To our knowledge, this was the only bargaining unit certified under the ALRA.

UFCW Canada Local 1993 established to the satisfaction of the Ontario Labour Relations Board that in excess of 55 percent of the employees wished to be represented by the UFCW pursuant to the ALRA, and as such, Local 1993 was automatically certified as the bargaining agent for these employees.

At the time of this certification, other certification applications were in process, namely at Kingsville Mushroom Farm Inc. in Kingsville, Ontario, and Fleming Chicks in Beamsville, Ontario. However, in June 1995, a new government was elected, and its first legislative act was to repeal the ALRA, which returned agricultural workers to their former status with no right to representation. The effect of the repeal was to terminate UFCW Canada Local 1993's representation of the Highline employees and the other certification applications that were in progress. A new Labour Relations Act was also enacted and it excluded agricultural workers from its application.

In 1995, UFCW Canada challenged the Ontario government's decision to exclude agricultural workers from coverage under the Ontario Labour Relations Act as a violation of the freedom of association and equality provisions under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Six years later, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the UFCW in Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General), finding that the exclusion of agricultural workers from the Labour Relations Act was a violation of their freedom of association.

The Ontario Government's response to the Dunmore decision was the Agricultural Employees Protection Act, 2002 (“AEPA””). The AEPA does not provide agricultural workers with collective bargaining rights enjoyed by workers under the Labour Relations Act. In particular, employers of agricultural workers are not under a duty to recognize unions as the workers' exclusive bargaining agent, or to bargain in good faith with unions that enjoy majority support among their employees.

In 2006, the AEPA was tested for the first time. The experience was that the AEPA proved to be ineffective in allowing workers to meaningfully represent themselves. Prior to this year, the 2006 test was the only case that workers had ever brought to the Tribunal since it was empowered in 2003.

The case was brought to the Tribunal by workers who were fired from Rol-Land Mushrooms in Kingsville, Ontario for attempting to organize. From the get-go, the hearings were bogged down in procedural wrangling. The workers never had a chance to testify and no decision was ever rendered. The workers did not feel the AEPA provided them with any protections or ability to bargain with an employer. The word spread that the AEPA was not worth using.

In 2008, a UFCW Canada case arrived at the Ontario Court of Appeal on behalf of the Rol-land workers, who found no remedy through the AEPA. The action was a Charter challenge of the AEPA. In November 2008, writing for a unanimous Court of Appeal, Chief Justice Winkler found that the AEPA violated Ontario agriculture workers’ right to collective bargaining and was unconstitutional. (The history of these proceedings is summarized in UFCW Canada et al v. Rol-Land Farms et al, 2008 CanLII 6652 (Ont. S.C.J. - Div. Ct.).

In March 2009, UFCW Canada filed complaints with the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) that both Ontario and Canada were in violation of the ILO’s Convention 87: Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, which declares the right to collective bargaining as a fundamental human right; and under ILO Convention No. 98 – Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining, as well as the ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

In April 2009, the Ontario government's application seeking leave to appeal the Court of Appeal decision was allowed by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In December 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the appeal of the Winkler AEPA decision and reserved to consider its decision.

On November 15, 2010, the ILO upheld the complaint filed by UFCW. The ILO found both Canada and Ontario guilty of a discriminatory attack on the human and labour rights of farm workers in the province. The ILO decision was forwarded to the Supreme Court of Canada to add to the other evidence and submissions in front of it.

On April 29, 2011, in spite of Ontario's violation of international human and labour rights standards, the Supreme Court upheld Ontario's appeal and judged the AEPA to be in keeping with the Charter. Despite the fact the AEPA tribunal had been "tested" in 2006-2007 and found wanting, the Supreme Court discounted this.

The fact that since 2002, prior to the present proceeding only one group of workers anywhere in Ontario ever used the AEPA to challenge their employer, is a stark indicator that that the AEPA model does not work. In 2012, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the ILO commented “the Committee expresses its particular concern over the relevancy of the simple provisions permitting representations in the AEPA, given that there does not appear to exist any successfully negotiated agreement since the Act’s adoption in 2002, nor has there been any indication of good faith negotiations. The Committee therefore continues to consider that the absence of any express machinery for the promotion of collective bargaining of agricultural workers constitutes an impediment to one of the principal objectives of the guarantee of freedom of association.”

While agriculture workers in other provinces have succeeded in organizing under those provinces’ labour acts, and despite the fact that over 80,000 workers are employed in the Ontario agri-industry at hundreds of locations, not one group of Ontario agriculture workers has ever been able to organize or bargain collectively under the AEPA. Evidently, the AEPA does not provide for meaningful collective bargaining. Instead, the Act weakens effective collective bargaining — without compensating with a binding arbitration provision.

Despite the current legislation – which has proven insufficient in upholding the labour rights of agriculture workers in Ontario – UFCW has continued to act as a primary advocate, representative, and resource for workers in the sector. Through outreach programs, we continue to deliver information on labour rights and health and safety training to workers in the sector. Recognizing the large number of seasonal agricultural workers that come to Ontario every year under foreign worker programs, UFCW Canada has developed specific programs to provide assistance and support to these workers.

UFCW Canada is also seen by the federal government as an ongoing principal stakeholder and consultant on matters regarding agriculture and food policy, as well as labour force issues and temporary and foreign workers programs.

Recently in Ontario, we have also provided a safe haven and resource to a number of migrant workers who were ensnared and exploited through a human trafficking scheme servicing the agriculture industry.

Our advocacy and representational efforts commenced two decades ago, with the UFCW Canada research initiative known as “The Global Justice Caravan Project,” which in 2001 toured the province to interview workers. This initiative resulted in the Report of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada – 2001.

The Report summarized the poor working conditions of migrant farm workers – including long hours of work, deplorable housing conditions, language barriers, social isolation, low wages, and a lack of legislative protections. Despite these working conditions, migrant workers continue to travel to Canada to earn a living. There is no safe place for these workers to raise their concerns. As the report states: "They believe voicing their concerns over living and/or working conditions to either their employer or Consulate Labour Liaison Officer can result in repatriation or blacklisting from participation in next year's program.”

In December 2002, UFCW Canada, together with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), produced the National Report: Focus of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada (the "National Report") on the status of migrant farm workers, which detailed many of the abuses of migrant workers and problems inherent in the policies and operation of the SAWP.

Subsequent to the National Report, UFCW Canada continued to produce annual reports that monitored the status of farm workers in Canada. Four years later, The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada 2015 report detailed that little had changed: that this mostly invisible workforce, hidden away in rural communities, is left vulnerable to exploitation, health risks, and reprisals because of legislative and regulatory regimes that hobble the ability of Ontario agriculture workers to organize. This continues today.

As the only viable sector partner, UFCW Canada has led the way for over two decades as a representative voice for Ontario agriculture workers and has established itself as the most authoritative and devoted labour body in advancing and protecting the rights and safety of farm workers in the province. This includes providing both community and on-line resources regarding health and safety, workplace rights and more, as well as advocacy and representation regarding the treatment and regulations covering agriculture workers.