Thursday, September 18, 2008

Migrant workers fired from B.C. greenhouse as union vote neared

Migrant workers fired from B.C. greenhouse as union vote neared

Fourteen Mexican farm workers employed at an Abbotsford greenhouse were fired from their jobs and sent back to Mexico days before a union-certification vote, the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada said yesterday.

The workers were terminated late in the day on Sept. 5, a Friday, before being driven to the airport the next day in time to catch an afternoon flight to Mexico, the union said.

On Sept. 4, the UFCW had filed an application to represent 29 employees at the company, Floralia Plant Growers Ltd.

Workers were scheduled to hold a certification vote today.

A woman who answered the phone at the company late yesterday afternoon said in response to questions, "I can't tell you anything" before hanging up.

The union has filed a complaint with the British Columbia Labour Relations Board and asked the board to order the company to rehire the workers and pay for their flights back to Canada, said Local 1518 spokesman Andy Neufeld.

"We are currently before the labour board on this," Mr. Neufeld said, adding that the union believes the workers were sent back to Mexico in retaliation for union activities.

Hearings are scheduled for this week.

The UFCW has spent years trying to unionize migrant farm workers in Canada and last month, successfully signed up migrant workers at Greenway Farms Ltd. in Surrey.

That certification was the first for migrant workers in B.C., which in 2004 began hiring under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

That program, started in the 1970s in Eastern Canada, was introduced to B.C. at the urging of agricultural producers who said they had difficulty finding enough help in the domestic market.

Under the terms of the SAWP, foreign workers are supposed to receive wages commensurate with those of Canadians, employer-paid international transportation, and health and medical benefits, as well as the same labour protection under the law as Canadians.

A June study of B.C. farm workers by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Simon Fraser University found farm workers are routinely exposed to pesticides and other chemicals; immigrant workers are regularly transported by farm labour contractors in vans that violate safety regulations; and health and safety standards are routinely violated, for example, by employers failing to provide adequate washroom facilities or water for hand-washing.

The union said the labour board has issued summonses for Floralia workers to appear before the board and taken steps to help the employees understand their rights.