Canada: Mexico found guilty of blacklisting pro-union migrant workers


A Canadian labour court has found Mexican government officials guilty of keeping a blacklist to prevent temporary foreign workers from returning to Canada because they were labelled as “pro-union.”

In a ruling released in last month, the Labour Relations Board of British Columbia (LRB) court also found that Mexican consular officials actively spied on migrant workers’ activities, and pressured people to inform on their co-workers.

No Mexican officials can be sentenced, however, as they are protected by diplomatic immunity.

Victor Robles, a migrant seasonal agricultural worker from Mexico, testified that he spoke with a Mexican government employee who told him that the real reason he “was blocked from travel was because he participated in a union.”

Robles had returned to Canada six times since 2004 to work for the same employer in the province of British Columbia.

In March 2010, the farm workers formed a union in the greenhouse where Robles worked.

The migrant workers at Sidhu & Sons Nursery Limited voted for the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW) Local 1518 to represent them.

This was seen as a significant achievement in Canadian labour history as it was only the second time temporary foreign migrant agricultural workers had successfully organised a union contract.

Robles went back to his home country in September 2010 where he was told by Mexican officials that his Canadian employer wanted him to return in 2011. Then he was advised by the Mexican Ministry of Labour that there was a problem with his visa.

Robles testified that, in February 2011, with his plane ticket to Canada already purchased but his exit visa denied, he was told by a Mexican official that his visa was blocked due to his union activity in Canada.

Andrea Gálvez, a spokesperson for UFCW-Mexico, told Equal Times that the Mexican government feels pressure from Canadian farmers, “who threaten them with diminishing the number of Mexicans they will hire.” A move that would affect the amount of remittances back to Mexico.

The Ottawa-based North-South Institute’s investigation of seasonal agricultural workers noted, in a policy brief entitled Migrant Workers in Canada, that the Mexican government is also concerned about losing the bi-lateral employment agreements to other Latin American countries.


Unfair labour practices

In a recent interview with RadioLabour, Stan Raper, National Director of the Agricultural Workers Alliance of the UFCW, said: “We realised that some of the workers, even though the collective agreement gave them seniority and recall rights, they were not to be returned.”

At the same time, some of the new workers at the farm had applied for union de-certification.

The UFCW filed charges of unfair labour practices with the LRB court naming the employer, the Mexican embassy and the Mexican government.

Raper explained that the UFCW had received a fax from an anonymous source that detailed how officials of the local Mexican consulate had directed the Mexican Ministry of Labour “to block people because of union activity.”

The LRB has ruled that Mexican embassy officials had interfered with and blocked Mexican seasonal workers who had regularly returned to Canada, and further, that the UFCW Local 1518 must be allowed to continue to represent the workers at the greenhouse.

After three years of legal wrangling, Ivan Limpright, president of UFCW Canada Local 1518 said in a statement: “It has been a long battle.

“Every worker in Canada has the right to join a union, including migrant workers. Mexico’s blacklisting and coercion violated Canadian laws and the rights of the workers involved.”

One week after the court ruling victory for the workers, Canada’s Minister of Employment Jason Kenney introduced stiffer penalties for employers taking advantage of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.

The penalties will come into effect in 2015.

The use of these so-called ‘guest’ workers has become a controversial issue in Canadian politics, at a time when national unemployment is rising.

As an incentive for employers, the federal program initially mandated a 15 per cent wage reduction for temporary foreign workers.

The program has expanded quickly since 2006, now counting around 500,000 foreign workers in the last few years.


“Economic apartheid”

One of the largest groups of temporary foreign workers admitted to Canada without a path to citizenship is migrant agricultural workers. In 2012, there were 257,515 new immigrants admitted as permanent residents with a path to citizenship.

But an additional 213,573 temporary foreign workers on short-term visas were forced to return home.

In 2012, seasonal workers represented more than 12 per cent of all temporary ‘guest’ workers and 17,765 Mexican nationals formed the majority of these migrant workers. The remainder comes from Guatemala and various Caribbean nations.

The immigrant rights advocacy group, Justicia For Migrant Workers, told Equal Times that the temporary foreign worker program creates a legislative double standard in the workplace.

Adriana Paz, spokesperson for Justicia-British Columbia, described it as “an economic labour apartheid model”.

Since 2012, over 4,000 employers, including many of Canada’s largest, like Blackberry and Bell Telecommunications, have applied to fast-track the hiring of temporary foreign workers.

Following a storm of public criticism last year, the Royal Bank of Canada apologised for training foreign IT workers to do the work of recently laid-off employees.

A franchise of the fast food giant McDonald’s is also under government investigation for the abuse of foreign workers.

Under criticism for creating an unfair two-tiered labour system, the Conservative government responded by withdrawing the 15 per cent wage reduction and mandating average wage standards.