Three Mexican migrant farm workers have filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government and their Ontario-based former employer for terminating their contract and sending them home without reason or explanation.
Michael Fenrick, a Toronto lawyer who is part of the team handling the case, says this is the first suit of its kind by migrant workers invoking their charter rights. The three men are seeking $25,000 each in damages for breach of contract, Fenrick said.
"We are talking about vulnerable workers here, who have a very difficult time enforcing their rights … these people were owed the opportunity of being presented with the allegations and an opportunity to respond before they were repatriated," Fenrick told CBC News.
Manuel Ruiz Espinoza, Salvador Reta Ruiz and Jose Ruiz Sosa, each had a contract with Tigchelaar Berry Farms in Vineland, Ont., in 2010 as seasonal agricultural workers, according to the statement of claim. The men, all Mexican citizens, were legally employed through the federal government's Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program. Espinoza and Ruiz had also worked for Tigchelaar during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
On Aug. 30, 2010, Tigchelaar fired all three men, and repatriated them to Mexico one day later without explanation, according to the statement of claim.
Community Legal Services of Niagara South received a call about the situation, and decided to take on the case along with Toronto law firm Paliare, Roland, Rosenberg and Rothstein.
The lawsuit was filed Nov. 17 on behalf of Espinoza, Ruiz and Sosa against the attorney general of Canada, the minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, the minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the non-profit entity Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services.
Charter applies: lawyer
Since the migrant workers were recruited through the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program, a partnership between Canada and Mexico, the government should be accountable, Fenrick said.
"In our view, this is a government program and it's a program that the government of Canada implements through these farms.... As a result, the charter will apply to that issue, of termination without an opportunity to respond," he said.
Tigchelaar Berry Farms and the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration could not immediately be reached for comment.
But Rick Dykstra, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of citizenship and immigration, told reporters Thursday that if migrant workers have a dispute with their employers, they should seek action through their home country.
"Their job from that perspective, if they feel they've been unfairly treated or unjustly treated, would be to make application through their country of origin to clear their name," he said.
Dykstra added that the Canadian government is making an ongoing effort to strengthen migrant workers' rights.
"I find that employers are much stronger in terms of... making sure that it's a clean and good process. This system's been around, you know, since the mid into late '60s [and] has been very, very successful in our country."
Difficult to report
Stan Raper, the national co-ordinator for the Agriculture Workers Alliance, an advocacy group for Canadian farm workers, said that migrant workers are often deterred from reporting unfair treatment. The cost of litigation, language barriers and the difficulty in seeking help once they've been repatriated may be too much, he said.
"Being able to access legal services and do the affidavits is a difficult process, and there is a language barrier. That's why it's been so hard to get any kind of legal action together," he told CBC News.
In addition to compensation for Ruiz, Espinoza and Sosa, Raper hopes that the lawsuit will lead to changes in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. He argues that the contracts signed through the program are vague and the rules around repatriation unclear.
"We've been asking for changes in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program since it was started. It's a 40-year program, and the contract has not changed at all.… This is a federal government program, and someone eventually has to be accountable for how the program is built and how these workers are treated," he said.
In 2008, there were 21,328 migrant farm workers in Canada, according to a 2009 United Food and Commercial Workers International Union report. Nearly 18,000 worked in Ontario, and 11,798 were from Mexico.