By Daniel Tseghay
On January 20th, migrant agricultural workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) working at Floralia Plant Growers Ltd. in Abbotsford, BC achieved an important victory. The B.C. Labour Relations Board ruled that Floralia broke labour laws by impeding the ability of migrant workers who are known to be union supporters to return to the farm in 2016.
The workers at Floralia, being a part of the SAWP system, are only in Canada on temporary work permits and are only allowed to return to Canada for subsequent work periods at the request of employers.
Floralia was unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1518 in 2008, and since then, there’s been a history of Floralia conspiring with the Mexican government to blacklist workers who supported unionization. This is despite the contract agreed upon by the union and the employer in 2008 requiring the employer to recall workers each season based on seniority rather than on their personal discretion.
“Seniority in recall means they’re basically securing job security,” says UFCW National Representative, Stan Raper, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “It removes the power from the naming process to job security. That’s the biggest thing that unions can offer. Whether you’re a migrant worker or working in a factory down the street job security means a lot to people. It means that you know that you’re going to be called back when the jobs and that the ones who’ve been there the longest are able to remain on the job.”
Recent evidence shows that in 2016 Floralia delayed recalling many of the workers suspected of being union sympathizers. Instead, Floralia used migrant workers from another agriculture operation, S&G Produce Limited. It’s a non-union operation owned by members of the same family that owns Floralia.
Consequently, in January 2016, the union filed charges against Floralia, claiming unfair labour practices that had the effect of decertifying the union. “It also charged that Floralia and S&G, were for all intent and purposes one and the same company, acting together to thwart the collective agreement,” reads a UFCW 1518 press release. “The board agreed, in a decision written and handed down by BCLRB Vice-Chair Jennifer Glogue.”
As of now, it’s unclear if the employer will appeal, nor just how quickly those workers who were supposed to be recalled based on their seniority can return to work in BC.
“If they want they can appeal which would delay the process for starting to fill out LMIAs [Labour Market Impact Assessments which are required of employers to prove they require a migrant worker. It can take a number of months before it’s processed and a migrant worker is brought to Canada],” says Raper. “If I’m a worker in Mexico and I haven’t been notified by the Ministry or by the employer that they want me to come back I’m trying to find work and so I don’t know if these workers are going to be already going to other farms. Our ability to ensure that all the people on that seniority list are coming back is not in our control. What is in our control is that they’re notified that the company has now been written up and have orders issued by the labour board because UFCW decided to continue to fight on their behalf.”
But the directives handed down by the BC Labour Relations Board were welcomed by UFCW 1518.
In addition to the Board directing the employer to reinstate the workers, it’ll now be more difficult for Floralia to use non-union workers from S&G Produce Limited by the Board decided that they are a common employer. “We no longer have the concern of another company doing bargaining unit work,” says UFCW 1518 counsel, Brett Matthews. “The work would ordinarily be done by union members but to avoid that they were having another company do that work. So that declaration was great.”
The union also received an extension on the collective agreement which had expired. “How do you negotiate a renewal of a collective agreement when your supporters aren’t there?” asks Matthews.
“This decision is an important victory for UFCW members at Floralia, our new members at S&G, and all agricultural workers, especially migrant workers, who come here every year as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program,” says Ivan Limpright, president of UFCW Canada Local 1518, in the press release.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” says Raper, “the industry says the naming process [where employers decide which migrant workers are returned at their own discretion] is good for them but it’s not good for workers and never has been. You can talk about status and immigration and all those things are tied in with that but those fundamental pillars have to be there for the SAWP to work in Canada – that all Canadians expect to work and that’s reality for the agricultural industry.”