The Roots of Organizing Agriculture Workers in Canada

AuthorWayne Hanley
The Roots of Organizing
Agriculture Workers in Canada
Wayne Hanley
A. Farm Workers in Ontario Struggle to Organize
For eight years, as the battle for farm workers’ rights in Ontario
moved from court to court, Mindy Leng believed that Canada’s Char-
ter of Rights and Freedoms would f‌inally provide her and tens of thou-
sands of other farm workers in Ontario with the justice and equality
she believed was at the heart of the law. But on 29 April 2011, the
Supreme Court of Canada delivered a decision that left her almost
speechless and all Ontario farm workers legally powerless and ex-
cluded from achieving effective collective bargaining with agribusi-
ness employers.1
Mindy Leng and some of her family had worked at the Kingsville,
Ontario, Rol-Land mushroom factory farm that was at the centre of
the Fraser case. Mindy’s job was to harvest mushrooms; clutching
a knife in one hand while climbing up and down mushroom grow
racks, set end-to-end like four-level bunk beds running the length of
the industrial facility. She and hundreds of others did their work in
almost total darkness, in a factory-sized sheet metal barn f‌illed with
1 Ontario (AG) v Fraser, 2011 SCC 20 [Fraser (SCC)]. See also, UFCW Canada, News
Release, “The Struggle Continues: Decision by Supreme Court Denies On-
tario Farm Workers Right to Effective Collective Bargaining” (29 April 2011)
online: UFCW Canada
court&catid=6%3Adirect ions-newsletter&Itemi d=316&lang=en.
Wayne Hanley 58
mould, high humidity, heat, chemicals, and harassment. Cuts and
falls were very common, but compensation claims were not because
of the fear of reprisals by the employer.
Mindy and her co-workers were paid by the total weight of the
mushrooms they picked. Workers out of favour with the managers
would be assigned to the barns with the smallest mushrooms, or just
outright f‌ired. Many of the workers were immigrants or recent refu-
gees with limited English f‌luency like Mindy and her family, who
had come to Canada as refugees from Cambodia. They would talk
in their mother tongue while working, but that was banned by the
owner, so they were forced to work in silence, except for the orders
barked out in English by their managers.
In 2003, Mindy and other members of her family, along with an
overwhelming majority of her other co-workers, voted to unionize
with United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW),2 in the
face of Ontario legislation that denied farm workers in Ontario the
right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.
And so the fate of Mindy Leng, and ultimately all farm workers in
Ontario, began to wind itself f‌irst through the labour board; then to
a reversal in the lower courts; then to a successful appeal; and f‌inally
to the Supreme Court of Canada where, on 9 December 2009, Mindy
Leng joined me, our legal counsel, and Stan Raper, the national co-
ordinator of the UFCW Canada agriculture workers program, along
with dozens of other lawyers and spectators.
Before departing for Ottawa, Mindy had been interviewed by
the local TV station and told them, “We’re human beings. We’re not
farm animals. We have human rights. We should be treated like other
workers in Ontario and be allowed to unionize. We wanted a union.
We needed a union. It is our right.
The Ontario Court of Appeal agreed with her.3 That decision
was appealed by the Government of Ontario to the Supreme Court
of Canada. Joining Ontario in its f‌ight to maintain the ban on farm
unions was the Ontario Federation of Agriculture—the same collec-
2 UFCW Canada, News Release, “Farm Workers Vote Overwhelmingly to Join union”
(19 September 2003) online: UFCW Canada
content&view=article& id=462%3Afarm-workers-vote-over whelmingly-to -join-
3 Fraser v Ontario (AG), 2008 ONCA 760 [Fraser (Ont CA)]. See UFCW Canada,
News Release, “Ontario Court Ruling Opens the Gate to Farm Unions” (17 Nov-
ember 2008) online: UFCW Canada
ntent&view=ar ticle&id=61 9%3Aontario- court-ru ling-op ens-the-gate -to-far m-

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