Migrant worker who took on boss and won is a 'very brave, exceptional man,' says lawyer
Luis Gabriel Flores Flores was fired after he spoke out about COVID-19 conditions at Norfolk farm
A Mexican migrant whistleblower may have won his case against the company that tried to fire and deport him, but his lawyer says the same thing can easily happen to others in his position.
The Ontario Labour Relations Board has ruled in favour of Luis Gabriel Flores Flores, who was sacked after speaking out against the crowded conditions at a Norkfolk County, Ont., farm owned by Scotlynn Growers. A coronavirus outbreak at the farm infected nearly 200 migrant workers, including Flores and his bunkmate Juan Lopez Chaparro, who died.
The board ordered Scotlynn Growers to pay Flores $20,000 in lost wages and $5,000 in damages. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
John No, Flores' lawyer, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.
Mr. No, how does your client … feel to know that this labour board agreed with him that he never should have been fired?
Of course, he's happy, but he's gone through a lot in the last six months. He went through the anxiety of being fired, being almost sent back home in the middle of the night, and having to rely on the charity of others for the last six months. So I think it's mostly a relief that it's done and that he's been vindicated.
He did something that I think is very difficult for a temporary foreign worker to do. He challenged his boss about the conditions. Why was he compelled to do that?
He challenged the boss in two ways, in the sense that before he got fired, he challenged his boss by speaking out about the health and safety conditions at work. I mean, one of his bunkmates, coworkers, died. And I think, you know, the injustice was clear on that.
And then the second time he challenged him was after he got fired, he decided that he was going to stand up for himself, despite the fact that his boss is a multinational, huge corporation. And he did it because he knew that this case was more than just about himself. It's about all the migrant farm workers who are put in this vulnerable, precarious situation.
And this is, of course, vulnerable [and] precarious because of the pandemic, which is how his bunkmate died. He died of COVID-19, is that right?
Yes, but this [precariousness] and vulnerability stemmed long before the COVID-19. It stems from the fact that migrant farm workers come here on what we call closed work permits. That means that they can't work for any other employer, and that the employer has all the power in the sense that if they don't like you, they could just repatriate you back to your home country.
So the vulnerability existed prior to COVID-19. But, of course, COVID-19 accentuated that vulnerability.
Can you … remind us of the conditions that your client says were at this farm at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak?
They all lived in bunkhouses. In a bunkhouse, there was roughly about 50 to 60 people per bunkhouse. They lived in an apartment with 13 other people within that bunkhouse. So there was no way to socially distance.
About 199 of the farm workers on Scotlynn Farms, out of about 221, contracted COVID-19. And one of his bunkmates that he shared the apartment with died because of that.
So those are the conditions, but to not accept those, you could be deported pretty quickly, right?
That's what happened. When the company announced to the workers of Mr. Juan Lopez Chaparro's death in a group meeting. Mr. Flores, our client, he spoke out and he said: Look, the company should have done more. He was sick for a week and you didn't do anything to help him. Perhaps he could be alive today if you guys [had] done more.
And the company reacted by saying: Who are you to say that? He's not even your family member.
And the very next day, the founder of the company, Robert Biddle … came to his bunkhouse, pointed to a video another worker had made complaining about the working conditions, accused him of being the person in the video, and told him that he's going back to Mexico the same day.
How did he avoid being deported at that point?
This is where luck came in. Through some other contacts, he happened to be connected previously to a professor in Western University. So he contacted her, who then contacted an organization called Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, who then arranged for him to be picked up by someone who is friendly to take him to a safe house. And through that, we were contacted, our legal clinic.
And so had he not had the fortune of meeting this professor a few weeks prior, he would have never been able to flee the farm and we would probably never have heard his story.
And what did the company and the people who fired him … say in their defence about this before the Ontario Labour Relations Board?
They denied that they fired him. They said that he quit, and that Bob Biddle … couldn't have fired him because he was on an island for Father's Day. Yet, he didn't bring any witnesses to corroborate it, the board found that his testimony was evasive, and that our client was telling the truth.
And fortunately, we also had a coworker who witnessed what happened, who was also sent back to Mexico, and he testified from Mexico City and he confirmed what had happened as well. So the board had no problem deciding that the company was not telling the truth.
The conditions that cause this exploitation and vulnerability still exist. This decision doesn't hasn't changed any of that.- John No, lawyer
And during all this time and up until now, Mr. Flores, he was working in Canada as a temporary foreign worker in order to support his family. He's been doing this for a number of years, hasn't he?
Yes, he worked in B.C., he worked in Quebec, he worked in Ontario. But unfortunately, despite the fact that we in Canada have decided he's good enough to work here, we haven't decided that he's good enough to live here. And I think that's where the real vulnerability came in.
They have no power. Unless the workers are given stable immigration status, Mr. Flores won't be the last person to have this happen to them. There'll be other workers that this will happen to.
So this case, what do you think that it may have done for temporary foreign workers? What has Mr. Flores actually brought to light here?
What his case has done is to confirm that this happens in Canada. But what we have to be aware of is the legal process is only reactive. The conditions that cause this exploitation and vulnerability still exist. This decision hasn't changed any of that.
And if we want to act proactively to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone again, we need a fair immigration system that allows workers to choose who they work for and to be able to quit if they work for a bad employer or poor working conditions, and for them to have stable immigration status from Day One.
This money, $20,000 in lost wages, $5,000 in damages, will cover what he's lost in the course of all this. But is there any long-term repercussions for Mr. Flores? Is he now a kind of, you know, a marked man, a troublemaker who may not be able to get work again, as he's been doing for years, to support his family?
That's why Mr. Flores is a very, very brave, exceptional man. At the end of the day, even though he's been vindicated by this, I mean, it's very possible that a prospective employer may search him on the internet and find that he's someone who speaks out if he sees injustices. And he still doesn't have stable immigration status. So he's taken this risk for the greater good. But, yeah, the vulnerability still exists for him.
Does he have a job now?
Luckily, he did get a temporary open work permit and he has found a factory job very recently.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.