In the News April 28
April 28 Day of Mourning
Michel Pilon, Migrant Agricultural Workers’ Network
Michel Pilon is the Executive Director of Assistance Networks for Migrant Agricultural Workers in Quebec (RATTMAQ)
We have been working with temporary workers, with Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans who are the main communities which have been coming to Quebec, for over 15 years. More and more, we also see Malagasy workers [from Madagascar] on the farms. We are not only working with agricultural workers, but also those employed in food-processing. We are talking about 27,000 workers who come to Quebec every year, in the agricultural and food-processing sectors.
On the issue of occupational health and safety, we work a lot with temporary foreign workers, and what I am seeing in terms of health and safety is that there is none. It doesn’t exist on the farms. RATTMAQ sits on the committees of the National Institute of Quebec Public Health (INSPQ), and we realize that there is an under-reporting of work accidents on the farms. The big cases that the RATTMAQ has before the courts at the moment are those of undeclared work accidents, because these workers do not know their rights and they do not speak the language. When they find themselves in front of the Labour Standards, Pay Equity and Workplace Health and Safety Board (CNESST) system, which functions in French or English, they face a wall. If our RATTMAQ workers did not intervene and involve themselves in the process, it would become a very serious problem.
One of the problems we have is with the mutual insurance companies in agriculture. These are big law firms. If the worker makes a claim, he or she is faced with big employer lawyers, and often workers who have made claims are confronted with an employer who actually disputes the claim. These mutual insurance companies call themselves mutual prevention companies but in fact they are management mutual insurance companies and have nothing to do with prevention. All they do is minimize the employers’ costs. As the workers are not able to afford lawyers, RATTMAQ represents them.
There is also the whole issue of the new law that was adopted, formerly Bill 59, An Act to modernize the occupational health and safety regime. Occupational health and safety committees will now be formed in sectors where they did not exist before, such as in agriculture. RATTMAQ is currently very concerned about how workers will be selected on farms. We are worried that employers will choose the workers who will sit on these committees and that these workers will be controlled by the employers. RATTMAQ is currently working to ensure that it trains these workers and that they are accompanied in their activities on the health and safety committees that will be set up on the farms. Since workers who are members of these committees will be able to make claims to the CNESST on behalf of their counterparts, which is not the case at the moment, we’re hoping that this will give rise to more claims and declarations of work-related accidents within agricultural enterprises.
RATTMAQ is active in the field. We have our field workers and the worker comes to see us because there has been a work accident. We realize that the employer has not made a claim. We make a claim on behalf of the worker, we accompany them through the system. If the claim is contested, we end up before the CNESST’s Review Board and then we plead before the Workplace Administrative Tribunal.
We must remember that these workers do not have the right to unionize. Their right to unionize was taken away in 2014, following a law adopted by the Liberal Party government, even though the Human Rights Commission had recognized their right to unionize. The Quebec government, like the Canadian government, signed the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention on the right to association in 2017 and is in contravention of its signature by prohibiting these agricultural workers from unionizing. The Quebec government must change its law, recognize the right of these workers so that they can finally collectively negotiate their working conditions, which also includes occupational health and safety.
The next few years are going to be even more important because the government has just raised the ceiling of temporary foreign workers that companies can employ, from 10 to 20 per cent of their workforce. The number of temporary foreign workers in Quebec will double and they will increasingly need an organization like ours to defend them so that they can claim their rights here in Quebec.
Workers’ Forum, posted April 28, 2022