United Food and Commercial Workers responds to new Senate Report on Migrant Work

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OTTAWA, May 24, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — United Food and Commercial Workers sees promise in the proposed reforms to Canada’s temporary and migrant labour force, outlined in a new Senate report, including the creation of a new Migrant Work Commission and the phasing out of employer-specific work permits.

On May 21, 2024, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released its report on Canada’s temporary and migrant labour force, Act Now: Solutions for temporary and migrant labour in Canada. The report outlines how Canada’s migrant labour infrastructure is failing workers and the employers who depend on them.

“It is clear that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is neither temporary nor a last and limited resort,” the report states. “The program is not working for migrant workers and could work better for employers.”

For more than three decades, UFCW has served as a leading advocate for migrant food workers. As such, the union welcomes the Senate’s acknowledgement of the glaring systemic issues with this program and views the report’s recommendations as having promise. UFCW has been lobbying the government for over twenty years on behalf of migrant workers: many of the recommendations in the Senate report have been made annually for decades in UFCW’s Status of Migrant Workers reports.

The right to representation and collective bargaining

“These recommended reforms have the potential to improve the lives of migrant workers in Canada, and we are pleased that the Senate Committee has listened to what UFCW has been saying for decades,” says Shawn Haggerty, UFCW Canada National President. “However, we are disappointed that there is not a recommendation for provincial guarantees to allow equal access to the labour rights. Any reform must include the fundamental labour right for migrant workers: the right to representation and bargaining collectively. Real representation is the best and most important tool for ensuring workers are defended against exploitation.”

As the food workers’ union, UFCW Canada represents thousands of migrant workers in unionized workplaces across the country, such as meatpacking plants. As union members, these migrant workers do not have to worry about their labour and health and safety rights being disregarded. UFCW fiercely advocates for its migrant members, including working with them to navigate the immigration pathways and become permanent residents if desired.

“Migrant workers with real representation do not become headline news. Migrant workers with real representation do not become the victims of human trafficking,” UFCW’s Derek Johnstone told the Senate Committee in 2022. “Migrant workers with real representation do not go home with disfigured bodies and the emotional baggage of being tormented by a horrible employer.”

A Migrant Worker Commission must include UFCW

UFCW Canada sees promise in the top recommendation of a tripartite Migrant Work Commission, in line with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) recommendations for social dialogue. At the same time, the union urges that it is vital that this commission be created to align with the ILO’s recently released Decent Work Guidelines for Agri-Food Sector.

Decent work cannot be advanced without social dialogue. It is crucial that the tripartite commission is fully in keeping with the ILO guidelines, with the representatives being from labour, industry and government. Social dialogue is defined by the ILO as an ongoing exchange of information and consultation between or among representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest. Representatives of the workers are defined as independent trade unions that are democratic organizations who are wholly accountable to their respective memberships.

If the Migrant Worker Commission is based on the proper ILO model, UFCW as the voice for agri-food workers should serve a central role in this tripartite approach.

Phasing out Employer-Specific Work Permits vital

A key report recommendation is the phasing out of employer-specific work permits; the report states that “the employer-specific work permit inherently makes migrant workers more vulnerable to abuse at the hands of bad actors as well as imposing structural barriers to accessing rights and protections.”

This is a welcome recommendation, as UFCW has long urged the government to remove employer-specific work permits. In addition, the union is pleased to see that the report adopts the UFCW recommendation of investing in regional sector councils; however, these councils must be structured under the framework of the ILO guidelines of social dialogue.

More pathways to permanent residence crucial

UFCW has long advocated for more pathways to permanent residence and welcomes the Senate committee’s acknowledgement that “neither migrant work programs nor workers are truly temporary”. The union sees promise in the recommendations to expand potential pathways to permanent residency for migrant workers.

However, the union is concerned about increased funding to the Migrant Workers Support Program without measures to ensure practices are in keeping with the ILO’s Decent Work Guidelines for the Agri-Food Sector. While the current support program is supposed to help educate workers about their labour rights, the first and most fundamental labour right – freedom of association – is missing in said education. Migrant workers must know that they have a right to organize and form unions, and any support that does not explicitly educate them about this fact is inadequate. Any reference to labour rights must begin with freedom of association, as per the ILO.

Union representation ensures workplace safety

The report offers recommendations for strengthening enforcement of existing regulations, such as increasing unannounced inspections. While this is important, unionized workplaces are the best guarantee of workplace safety. The best way to prevent unsafe and exploitative work environments is to provide migrant workers access to the same collective bargaining rights as other Canadian workers.

In brief, while UFCW believes that many of the Senate recommendations are potentially promising changes, reform must be implemented in a way that incorporates the guidelines set forth by the International Labour Organization. The Canadian government must ensure that migrant workers have true labour rights: freedom of association is fundamental to every Canadian worker, and migrant workers must be included in this.

About

UFCW Canada (the United Food and Commercial Workers Union) represents more than 250,000 members across Canada working in every sector of the food industry from field to table. For over three decades, UFCW Canada has been the leading voice and advocate for domestic and migrant agricultural workers.

Contact:

Derek Johnstone
Special Assistant to the National President, UFCW Canada
416-649-3417
[email protected]

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