Farmworkers' quest for human rights arrives at the Supreme Court

OTTAWA — On December 17, a decades-long quest by Ontario farm workers to regain their human rights arrived at the Supreme Court of Canada.

It was the latest stop for a case that stems from a Charter challenge launched by UFCW Canada on behalf of Ontario agriculture workers such as  Mindy Leng — who in 1995 had had their rights to unionize stripped away by legislation brought in by then Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

“Farm workers are human beings. We’re not
farm animals. We have human rights." - Mindy Leng

“Farm workers are human beings. We’re not farm animals. We have human rights. We should be treated like other workers in Ontario and be allowed to unionize,” says Leng, who attended the Supreme Court in Ottawa as it heard arguments that Ontario’s ban on farm unions is unconstitutional under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“This is a question about justice and equality,” says Wayne Hanley, the National President of UFCW Canada which was the respondent in the Supreme Court case. “These workers are looking to the Supreme Court to tell the McGuinty government, once and for all, that agricultural workers in Ontario have the same human rights as ever other Ontario worker — including their rights, guaranteed by the Charter, to join a union and bargain collectively."

UFCW Canada is the country’s largest private sector union. For two decades it has led the campaign to protect and promote the rights of Canada’s agricultural workers, in the courts, and in the communities where farm workers work. UFCW Canada, in association with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, also operates nine agriculture worker support centres across Canada that in 2009 handled thousands of files assisting farm workers across Canada with their health, safety, housing and workplace rights concerns.
One of these AWA centres is in Leamington, Ontario just a few kilometers from the multi-million dollar mushroom farm factory where Mindy was paid by each mushroom she picked.

“We wanted a union. We needed a union. It was our right,” says Leng, a Windsor, Ontario resident. But in 2003 the Harris/Eaves Tories said “unions are not allowed under the AEPA”. Without a union contract, Ontario farm workers, to this day, can be fired or repatriated at any time without cause.

The Liberal McGuinty government has continued the Harris legacy of the farm union ban, as well as other restricted rights for farm workers, in spite of a November 2008 Ontario Court ruling which ordered Ontario to drop the union-banning AEPA legislation because it was unconstitutional. The decision pointed to the Section 2(d) Freedom of Association Rights which under the Charter guarantees the right to organize for the purposes of collective bargaining.

But instead of following that November 2008 order, the McGuinty Liberals appealed it to the Supreme Court, which heard the case on December 17. The ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada is not expected for some months.

“UFCW Canada has stood shoulder-to-shoulder, decade by decade, with these workers," says National President Hanley. "We will continue to stand with them until their Charter rights are respected, and their violation ends.”