A press release by the Canadian United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada), the country’s largest private sector union, announced that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has ruled the Canadian province of Ontario’s ban on farm worker unions in violation of the human rights of more than 100,000 migrant and domestic agricultural laborers in the region. The decision followed a complaint filed by the UFCW in March 2009 against Ontario’s 2002 Agricultural Employees Act (AEPA). Under the AEPA, farm workers could join or form an association, but were not allowed to participate in collective bargaining. The UFCW argued in their complaint that “Denying collective bargaining rights to agricultural employees was a violation of their fundamental human right to freedom of association.” The ruling supported a November 17, 2008 Ontario Court of Appeal decision that found the AEPA in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The ILO, the UN body charged with the “promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights,” found this legislation to be in violation of the ILO Convention No. 87– Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and ILO Convetion No. 98– Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining. Canada is a signatory to the first and supported the second, pledging in 1972 to uphold these obligations. This ruling follows a series of complaints filed with the ILO against Canadian provinces for labor violations also including British Colombia, Ottawa and Newfoundland. Canada has been a member of the ILO since its founding in 1919 and has continued to participate since the ILO’s inclusion as a specialized agency of the UN in 1946.
This ruling demonstrates the growing internationalization of the agricultural labor movement. The use of a UN body to appeal a Canadian ruling highlights the movement to treat farm worker rights violations as a universal issue. The decision by UFCW to take a complaint to the ILO and the resulting ruling allow for movement toward the creation of more internationally recognized standards for agricultural workers. Ontario’s 2002 AEPA represents a frightening trend towards farm worker exclusion from rights valued as fundamental for other laborers. The hope is that the use of international organizations can more broadly condemn this type of legislation. While farm workers certainly represent a unique sector, this ILO ruling illustrates a growing belief that the right to organize and collectively bargain should not be a regulated privilege, but a human right.