Mexican migrant workers say they were misled into signing union cards

Mexican migrant workers at a Portage la Prairie, Man., fruit and vegetable farm will soon find out if they can unionize, even though many now say they were misled into signing union cards.

Mexican migrant workers at a Portage la Prairie, Man., fruit and vegetable farm will soon find out if they can unionize, even though many now say they were misled into signing union cards.

The Manitoba Labour Board concluded hearings Wednesday on whether 59 migrant workers from Mayfair Farms can join the United Food and Commercial Workers union. A decision is expected in the next two to three weeks.

If the board certifies the union's application, the Mayfair Farms workers would be the first unionized group of foreign farm workers in Canada. It could also set a precedent for organizing foreign labour across the country.

The UFCW applied for certification in September, after it had signed up more than 65 per cent of the Mayfair Farms workers — which, under Manitoba law, would entitle the group to automatic union membership.

But that same month, 43 of the workers signed statements saying they were misled by the union and they do not want to join any union.

"We don’t want a syndicato here in Portage because we don't need it," Heladio Martinez, 39, told CBC News, referring to the Spanish term for union.

Martinez, who works 12-hour days as a labourer in Mexico during the winter months, said he comes to Portage la Prairie between April and November in order to support his wife and two young daughters.

"Family's very important for me, it's very important to work in Canada because it's difficult to have one job in Mexico," he said.

Martinez and the other workers who signed statements accused the UFCW of telling them the union would provide them with a lawyer for three of their co-workers, who were arrested in connection with a sexual assault and the assault of a police officer while the workers were off duty.

"On that basis, these 43 individuals say they signed union cards," said Winnipeg lawyer Paul Edwards, who represents the 43 Mexican workers. "They say if not for that commitment, they would not have signed the union card.

"That was what they thought needed to be done. That was what they believed they've been told, and they were scared, and that's why they signed them."

Lincoln Ellis, a UFCW organizer who worked with the Mayfair workers, denied the claims that the union offered them legal help. He said he's worried someone has coerced them into signing the statements denouncing the union.

"We feel that they do want to be part of the union," he said. "We don't think that these statements are representative of the true feelings of those employees."

Ellis said unionization can bring foreign workers benefits, even though the seasonal worker program is negotiated between the federal government and another country.

"We hope to bring job security, we hope to improve the safety and health on farms," he said.

A Mexican migrant worker who did not want to be identified told CBC News that the work and hours are good at Mayfair, but he would like some support in his relationship with his employer.

Precedent-setting decision worries farmer

The owner of Mayfair Farms told CBC News he could not comment on the matter until the labour board comes to a decision on this case.

But other area farmers expressed frustration that the Manitoba Labour Board did not hear any of the 43 opposing workers' concerns, as they were not given standing at the hearing.

The labour board says it is solely concerned with determining whether it has the authority to certify a union local composed of temporary foreign workers.

Portage-area vegetable farmer Doug Connery, who has served as a labour representative with the Vegetable Growers Association of Manitoba and the Canadian Horticultural Council, said he and other farmers are worried the UFCW is trying to unionize Mayfair Farms to establish a nationwide precedent.

About 18,000 foreign agricultural workers come to Canada every year under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. About 1,000 of those migrant workers end up in Manitoba.

Eighty per cent of migrant workers end up in Ontario. The UFCW is challenging Ontario legislation that does not allow foreign workers there to unionize.

"We have to remember, all these farms that are working are family farms. We cannot do the work without the workers and the workers do not have work without us. It's actually a family," said Connery, who has hired Mexican workers on his farm for 32 years.

"If things were as bad as what the unions are trying to say they are, people have choices of going to other places."