Mexico accused of blacklisting seasonal workers who unionize in Canada

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Photo: flickr/Egan Snow

A successful campaign to unionize migrant workers has led to allegations that the Mexican government blacklisted labour activists, then prevented some of those workers from returning to work in Canada under Canada's Seasonal Agricultural worker program.

For almost four years, Stan Raper and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) have been fighting a battle for a group of migrant workers in B.C. who did something controversial -- they unionized.

"It has been a difficult process," explained Raper, the national coordinator for the UFCW's Agricultural Workers Alliance, as he detailed the multiple court battles he and the workers have undertaken.

The story begins with a group of agricultural workers from Mexico who, while living and working in B.C., decided to form a union with the help of UFCW.

On February 9, 2010 workers at Sidhu & Sons Nursery, a flower growing operation in Abbotsford, B.C., were organized. Raper believes initially there were 160 employees at the operation, a mix of migrant and domestic workers, though that number has fluctuated since the original organizing drive. Raper was unable to give an exact number of current employees, but did note that the farm employed a mix of seasonal migrant workers and domestic workers.

The workers in the UFCW unit, however, are seasonal workers who entered Canada as a part of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

It can be difficult for temporary foreign workers to join unions because they fear repercussions from management. That these workers organized was considered a victory by UFCW.

The story might have ended happily, but then, some workers who returned home to Mexico discovered that for no immediately discernable reason, they were no longer welcome back to Canada to work. Others were scattered to different farms instead of returning to Sidhu & Sons where they had fought to form a union. (Due to concerns for the workers safety and ability to return to Canada, they declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Then, migrant workers at Sidhu & Sons mounted a union decertification campaign, which would dissolve the local they had successfully organized. Their application made it to the B.C. Labour Board in April of 2011, and UFCW began to suspect that there was an effort to break the union local underway.

"We're talking about seasonal farm workers," said Raper. "How did they know what to do around the decertification?"

Documents leaked to UFCW in 2011 also seemed to support the idea that the Mexican government had interfered and stopped the workers from returning to Canada. The documents, which can be found in their original Spanish on UFCW's site, appear to be from the Mexican Labour Ministry, and specifically mention that a Sidhu & Sons worker, Victor Robles, who should be kept out of the country because he is affiliated with a union.

UFCW calls that process blacklisting: a government barring workers from Canada because of their union affiliations. The union had suspected that other workers had been blacklisted for the same reasons at various workplaces in the past, but they had never had evidence until the package arrived.

The alleged blacklisting problem exists because under the SAWP program, Mexico approves the workers who go to Canada, takes full responsibility for them and can terminate positions at any time.

Normally it would be very difficult to find out the exact reason why a worker's position was terminated as Mexico could claim diplomatic immunity -- the decision is made within the Mexican embassy and therefore is subject to the Vienna Convention on consular relations. As well any attempt to name Mexico in court -- as UFCW did initially try to do -- would run afoul of the State Immunity Act, under which foreign states are immune to the jurisdiction of courts in Canada. The Mexican embassy in Ottawa did not provide comment on this story before press time.

To help them counter the decertification, UFCW found former embassy employees who would testify to the existence of a blacklist. Then, the Mexican government claimed that even though the employees testifying no longer worked for the embassy, their testimony could not be included because it was still protected by the Vienna Convention. The BC Labour Board ruled in favor of Mexico's position. That was two years ago.

This year, on January 15, a BC Supreme Court justice reversed the BC Labour Board decision, finding that there was nothing in the Vienna Convention preventing former embassy employees from voluntarily testifying.

This was a major victory for UFCW, but there is still a long way to go. Raper has received confirmation that the Mexican government will appeal the decision, meaning the case will make its way to the BC Court of Appeal -- and potentially the Supreme Court of Canada, should the SCC give leave to appeal.

For the migrant workers, what the government would deem a "temporary" work situation has turned into a four year battle. It's one they won't give up on.

"We're determined to see it right though to the end," said Raper. "Whatever that is."

Photo: flickr/Egan Snow

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