Ontario’s Workers Demand Justice

“Why hasn’t Canada signed, ratified, and implemented the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families?” asks a plum. “I demand dignified treatment, respect, and guarantees of my rights as a worker”, says a pear. An apple notes that, “It is legal for farmers and employers to exploit migrant farm workers in Canada.” Meanwhile, grapes from the Niagara region join in with “Ice Wine: Pride and Luxury with a Canadian label, one of the most expensive but produced with the exploitation of migrant labour with the worst salary and without protection.” These fruits are not actually talking but are simply packaged in small paper bags with a card, with a question, or statement. Migrant workers in Ontario were asked, “If the fruit you were growing could speak, what do you wish they would say?” This traveling exhibit, Speaking Fruit, collected their answers and has been on its way to Ottawa to raise support and demand a response from our government.

Many Ontarians are unaware that most of the produce grown in Ontario comes from a small town near Windsor called Leamington. Leamington has a vast series of greenhouses growing food for sale to big and small grocery stores in this province. Calling itself the Tomato Capital of Canada, Leamington has the largest concentration of greenhouses on this continent. The farmer-owners of these greenhouses employ migrant worker to do most of the gruelling labour. Most of these workers are from Mexico and the Caribbean and they are brought in with promises of rich-country wages. However, they arrive to learn that they have to pay their employer for their housing (at several times the market rate) and they would be living with as many as 20 people in one house and would have to sleep in shifts. These workers are not given safety training or equipment and they are adversely affected when working with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. If migrant workers complain, they lose their jobs. Since their work visas are tied to their employment, they are also then immediately sent back to their home countries. In many cases, even their final pay-cheques are withheld by their employers or they are not paid the full amount. If one of them dies or is injured on the job – an all too common occurrence – they (or their corpse) are swiftly sent home to their family with no recompense or even apologies. Ontarians should be ashamed that this happens in our province.

What can be done to help? Currently, Bill 148 (Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act) is under consideration by the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, the mandate of which is to raise the minimum wage and improve workplace conditions. However, there are no provisions to improve conditions for migrant workers – or temp agency workers, for that matter. There cannot be two classes of workers: one treated fairly under the law and one for exploitation. Call or visit your MPP and let them know that Ontarians demand fair treatment for all workers.

Liberals Abandon Electoral Reform

Early in February, the newly-appointed Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, announced that she was informed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that “Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate”. This move surprised many, as one of the key campaign promises by the PM was that 2015 “will be the last federal election conducted under the First-Past-The-Post voting system”. By one count, Justin Trudeau personally voiced this promise over 1800 times during the campaign. Many were angry at the announcement, with hundreds showing up to a protest in Toronto alone and NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen calling it, “One of the most cynical displays of self-serving politics.”

Perhaps the move should not have been a surprise. In January, Mr. Trudeau suggested that Canadians were less interested in electoral reform because they were now under a Liberal government that they liked. How the Prime Minister was able to determine Canadians’ interest in electoral reformm was not mentioned. The Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) –a diverse body of elected officials commissioned by the government to study the issue – finished six months of consultations with experts and the public in a series of town halls across the country, and came back to the government with a recommendation: a referendum on whether or not to move to some form of proportional representation. The government rejected this recommendation, claiming that there was no clear consensus on what Canadians wanted, that a referendum would be too divisive, and that extremist parties would proliferate under a proportional representation system. The fact that 88% of testimony to the ERRE was in favour of proportional representation and that Canadians could have made their wishes clear in a referendum, was apparently not taken into account by the Prime Minister. (Along with the fact that fringe parties could be kept out by a minimum vote threshold).

Cynics have suggested that the reason for the rejection was that the committee did not recommend the Liberal Party’s preferred system of ranked ballots. This system would have led to the centrist Liberals being the second-choice for many on the right and left and guaranteed the formation of successive Liberal governments. Whether or not this was the case cannot be determined from outside the party’s inner circle.

One direct product of this broken promise will be an increase in general voter dissatisfaction. When combined with other broken Liberal promises: the approval of the Trans-Mountain pipeline, no free, prior, and informed consent from communities affected by pipeline construction, and a refusal to ratify the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – distrust of the government and in politics increases. This may have led to the results from a recent poll where only 43% of Canadians said that their government could be trusted.

Most people are familiar with self-interested leaders strengthening their position at the expense of their organization. By acting in their own self-interest, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals may well have damaged democracy in Canada.

A Strike for Real Food and Real Jobs at York University

If you have ever bought food at York University, you likely didn’t spare much thought for the person serving you. We tend not to think much of the people serving us but they think a lot about us. At York, they even think of their customers as their kids, making sure that they serve good food and provide a good service.  Customer service isn’t easy, with many hours on your feet to serve an often fickle public -it’s a job that can be made even worse with bad management. The situation at York illustrates this perfectly.

Food service workers at the university are not directly employed by York and are not covered by any existing labour agreements with York employees. Instead, York has contracted out the operation of most cafes and restaurants on campus to Aramark, a company notorious for not paying employees for the hours they’ve worked and for firing food service employees for speaking out about unsanitary working conditions. It’s hardly surprising that many of these workers privately admit that they would never eat at an Aramark operated shop because of the number of health code violations they’ve seen on the job.

The circumstances at York are hardly different, but at least they are members of a union. In addition to the health code violations, many employees who’ve worked there for over ten years are still not considered full time and are not even eligible for benefits. Unite Here, the union covering the workers, has also documented instances of Aramark managers using racist names for their employees, many of whom come from Caribbean countries. In at least one instance, a manager kicked an employee hard enough to leave a bruise on her shin. This employee was later suspended for being too loud – the fact that she is part of the union bargaining committee makes this management decision highly suspicious.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that a strike vote taken in December passed unanimously – there were no members who voted against the measure. Real Food Real Jobs, a campus organization of students, faculty, and community members who work to aid the workers, has held information sessions so everyone on campus knows what’s at stake and what to expect.

Not all shops on campus are operated by Aramark; sympathizers can visit the Real Food Real Jobs website or Facebook page to see which shops to avoid during the strike. Winter is a difficult time for a strike so let’s all show our support.