Tuesday, 7 November 2006

Union challenges Canadian law for migrant food industry workers

November, 2003 TORONTO, ON -

UFCW Canada, the union that represents workers in Canada's food industry, has today launched a constitutional challenge in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against the federal government. The Union charges that requiring migrant agricultural workers to pay premiums under the Employment Insurance Act for benefits they can't claim violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Migrant agricultural workers come to Canada from Mexico and the Caribbean under the federal government's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program to do seasonal work planting and harvesting crops between February and November of each year. The applicant in this court case is Michael J. Fraser, the national director of UFCW Canada. Expert affidavits from three academics have been submitted to support the application. The Employment Insurance Act is a social insurance scheme which provides income replacement benefits to workers who become unemployed. Entitlement to benefits is based on an employee's paying premiums into the employment insurance fund. By law, migrant agricultural workers must pay premiums under the Act. But they cannot actually claim the unemployment benefits or sick leave benefits for which they pay premiums because they must leave the country when they are no longer working. Sections 18 and 37 of the Act require that an individual must be physically in Canada and available for work in order to receive benefits. Migrant agricultural workers earn near minimum wages, most receiving the government- prescribed minimum of 7.50 per hour. On average they work in Canada for about 18 weeks and earn about 8,500. During the harvest season they often work 14-16 hours per day, 6 days a week plus a half day on Sunday. In 2002, from their low wages, migrant agricultural workers paid 3.4 million in premiums under the Employment Insurance Act. Farm employers paid a further 4.8 million in premiums on behalf of these workers for a total of 8.2 million in premiums in one year for benefits the workers cannot claim. At the end of the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the Employment Insurance Fund had a surplus of 44.3 billion. "Migrant farm workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in Canadian society. For a rich country like Canada to exploit these poor workers is unconscionable," says Michael J. Fraser, national director of UFCW Canada. "To realize that this exploitation is done when the EI fund is billions of dollars in surplus makes me ashamed to be a Canadian. I call upon Mr. Martin to eliminate this grave injustice so that these poor migrant farm workers have a few more dollars to spend on life's necessities and their families." UFCW Canada argues requiring these low wage workers to pay premiums for benefits they cannot receive violates section 15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees every individual's right to equality under the law and equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination. At the same time that this Charter challenge is being launched, Human Resources Development Canada, the Caribbean liaison offices, and the Mexican consulate, are holding their Annual Regional Meeting about the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Some provincial government departments as well as the Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.), which administers the SAWP in Ontario will be in attendance. This is the third Charter challenge that UFCW Canada has launched on behalf of agricultural workers. In December 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Ontario government's exclusion of agricultural workers from the right to organize and be represented by a union violated their right to freedom of association under the Charter. The Eves government introduced the Agricultural Employees Protection Act in response to this decision. UFCW Canada takes the position that that legislation continues to deny agricultural workers the right to organize and is preparing to challenge this continued denial of freedom of association. In June 2003, UFCW Canada launched a second Charter challenge against the Ontario government arguing that the exclusion of agricultural workers from the Occupational Health and Safety Act violates the right to equality and the right to security of the person under the Charter. UFCW Canada is one of this country's largest private sector unions representing more than 230,000 members across Canada working in every sector of the food industry, as well as other service, commercial, processing, manufacturing, technical and professional occupations.

For more information and to arrange interviews contact:
Michael Forman, UFCW Canada Communications
416-675-1104 office
416-579-8330 cell

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