A group of migrant agricultural workers employed in Abbotsford, B.C. have become the first in Canada to unionize in nearly two decades.

Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced that 170 workers at four factories owned by Highline Mushrooms decided to join the union. The push to unionize was driven by workers seeking higher wages, better safety standards and minimized favoritism of certain workers by managers, said Eneida Montoya, a plant employee from Guatemala.

Mushroom workers are typically paid by the piece to work long hours in dark, wet conditions where they risk slipping and exposure to harmful gases, she said. Moreover, temporary foreign workers in Canada cannot obtain permanent residency and have visas tied to their employers, meaning they risk deportation if they push for better conditions or try to find other jobs that are safer or more lucrative.

In a Thursday statement, Highline Mushrooms said the company "respects our employees decision to be part of a union and will work with them to continue to provide exceptional employee experience."

Experts say the move marks an important step in efforts to improve working conditions, wages and job security for the thousands of temporary foreign workers employed on Canadian farms each year. Those benefits include securing better protection from working in excessive heat, which is predicted to become more common as the climate crisis deepens.

A group of #migrant agricultural #workers employed in Abbotsford, B.C. have become the first in #Canada to #unionize in nearly two decades. #UFCW

"Unions provide one important democratic vehicle for workers to have a collective voice in pushing back against corporate power," said Anelyse Weiler, a professor and migrant labour expert at the University of Victoria. "In that sense, migrant workers who have a whole suite of complex pressures that undermine their bargaining power can have a slightly better say in conditions that affect their lives."

According to a recent report by UFCW, agricultural workers are exposed to twice as much risk of on-the-job fatalities than workers in other sectors. Farmworkers are also often excluded from some labour laws. For example, in B.C. they do not receive overtime or statutory holidays. They also risk being exposed to dangerous machinery, harmful chemicals and face the risk of burnout due to isolation, long hours and extreme weather, the report notes.

Unions can help alleviate some of these issues, Weiler said. For instance, she noted unionized migrant workers in Canada's meatpacking sector have used their collective bargaining power to secure a pathway to permanent residency. Most migrant workers in Canada have no easy path to obtain residency in the country, a situation workers and advocates say leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

She noted that according to 2018 data from Statistics Canada, about 65 per cent of migrant workers were employed on farms with over $2 million in revenue. The "small-scale" operations that farm industry groups tend to portray as the primary beneficiaries of Canada's agricultural worker programs only account for a fraction of the employers. The majority are large corporations whose power can be more effectively curbed with unionization, she said.

Still, Weiler said "it remains to be seen" if the success of the unionization drive among workers at the Highline Mushroom plant will trigger more widespread unionization among agricultural migrant workers.

"Migrant workers are really up against a huge suite of barriers," she said. "It is very difficult to unionize workers who are going to be repatriated – potentially – for engaging in labor organizing."

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Update: This story was updated on June 27, 2024 to include a statement from Highline Mushrooms and correct Eneida Montoya's country of origin.

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Good for them.
Incidentally, while I'm really annoyed at the BC NDP on things like liquid natural gas, they can take credit for this. The NDP brought back card check unionization; if they had to go through one of those American style union elections under the employer's gun, there's no way this would have happened.