The recent victory in the Ontario Court of Appeal allowing farm workers to form unions and bargain collectively comes after a long, protracted, and exhausting battle to give them the same rights as other workers.
Farm workers carry out some of the most dangerous, difficult, and dirty jobs in the country, under conditions most Canadians would not accept. This explains why, for more than a century, the federal government has resorted to using immigration policy to supply growers with people who could be made willing to do these jobs: British orphans, Polish POWs, Displaced Persons, and since 1966, migrant workers from the Global South under temporary foreign worker programs. Today, some 25,000 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica, Thailand, and several other countries enter Canada under temporary visas to take up farm jobs that most Canadians avoid.
Since at least the 1970s, the labour movement has struggled to convince the province to extend collective bargaining rights to farm workers. In 1994, after three years of talks between the agricultural lobby and United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), workers were briefly allowed to unionize, but this key moment in Ontario farming history was short lived when a Conservative legislature in 1995 repealed the legislation. The UFCW took the government of Ontario to court and, in 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the union’s favour, instructing the province to table new legislation. That legislation, however, only gave workers the right to associate – not to unionize. The union took the province back to court in 2004.
The battle is far from over. In August, when a farm in B. C. became the first certified agricultural unit in the province comprised of temporary visa migrants, two employer organizations filed an application to the B. C. Labour Relations Board (BCLRB) requesting a reversal. The British Columbia Agricultural Council and the Western Agricultural Labour Initiative argue that legislation protecting Canadian citizens or permanent residents does not apply to temporary visa workers.
The claim that agriculture is exceptional has been used by growers throughout the high-income world to lobby government to except them from legislation
regulating other industries. Agriculture is indeed different for a number of reasons, with perhaps the most notable being the fact that food production is entirely dependent on biophysical processes. Furthermore, in the contemporary world economy, agri-food markets are among the most globalized and therefore, competitive.
A further argument long used by the agricultural lobby is that production is dominated by family farms with low profit margins. There is a continued trend towards fewer and larger farms, and many of these have thrived rather than shrivelled under globalization. Production of many crops, such as greenhouse vegetables, continues to increase. These are the main employers of migrant and domestic farm workers.
While agriculture may be a unique industry facing new challenges under globalization, surely the solution cannot be reduced to supporting the livelihoods of one group of rural inhabitants over the well-being of another, nor should competitiveness be achieved through exploitation.
– Kerry Preibisch is a researcher with Rural Women Making Change. She teaches sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph.