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B.C. labour board rejects union’s claim at farm

The United Food and Commercial Workers’ union won’t get automatic certification at an Abbotsford, B.C. fruit and vegetable farm where it claimed the “most vocal” workers were shipped home before a vote could be held.

The British Columbia Labour Relations Board, which conducted a union certification vote for UFCW Local 1518 at Floralia Plant Growers on Sept. 15, said in a decision Wednesday that it will count the ballots of the vote as held.

The board also dismissed the UFCW’s claims of unfair labour practices, won’t hold a hearing on remedy and thus won’t order the “remedial certification” for which UFCW asked.

The union had alleged unfair labour practices by Floralia, claiming it had laid off 14 of 29 Mexican employees the day after UFCW filed its certification application, and that the farm engaged in “coercive and intimidating behaviour through holding a captive audience meeting in which certain statements were allegedly made.”

The 14 employees, all of whom were in Canada as part of the federal government’s seasonal agricultural workers program (SAWP), had been laid off the evening of Sept. 5 and were put on a plane in Vancouver on Sept. 6.

Rotten crops

Board vice-chair Beverley Burns, in a decision released Wednesday after hearings that wrapped up Sept. 29, ruled that the farm’s owner/operators, brother and sister Ramji and Parveen Sandhu, had set the wheels in motion for a layoff before they were aware of the union certification filing.

“There is no dispute the 2008 farming season was a difficult one due to inclement weather conditions,” Burns wrote. Due to heavy rains in August, much of Floralia’s crop was rotting in the fields or yielding far below normal.

On Sept. 1, the Sandhus’ father and business advisor, Amarjit Sandhu, told the siblings that his inspection found the crops were failing and “a complete harvest would not be possible,” Burns wrote. “In particular, the broccoli crop that was rotting in the field would be lost.”

Workers on Sept. 1 found that the bean crop was rotting as well, and Ramji Sandhu said he “made a firm decision to reduce the workforce” that day, Burns wrote. The farm’s distributor had already rejected some of its produce for poor quality and the farm had already short-shipped or cancelled some orders, she noted.

Ramji Sandhu testified that “he was struggling to find work to keep the workers busy,” directing them to clean the farmyard and farming equipment on top of their remaining harvesting duties, Burns wrote.

“No evidence”

Where UFCW alleged Floralia “sent home the most vocal union supporters in a bid to prevent unionization from occurring,” Burns ruled that “there was no evidence in the hearing to indicate which employees were union supporters and which were not,” nor that Floralia knew of “any organizing activities prior to
receiving the application for certification or any idea who the union supporters were.”

The provincial labour code, Burns wrote, “does not require the employer to cancel its plans and put the layoff on hold because it had received the union’s application for certification… but had not implemented the layoff. This would put the employer in the position of employing workers for an uncertain length of time with no work to give them, until the board decided the certification application.”

As for its complaint about a “coercive and intimidating” meeting with workers, Burns said she found only that a document outlining Floralia’s position on the matter was read to workers at a meeting and discussed point by point.

“Given that there was nothing improper in the
employer’s document and that there were no allegations that it was presented in an unreasonable or forceful manner, I conclude that the employer did not engage in any coercive or intimidating behaviour,” Burns wrote.

UFCW, in a Sept. 15 release, had described the Sandhus’ layoffs as a “mass termination and repatriation” and demanded that the 14 SAWP workers be paid their lost wages, given passage to Canada and “immediately” reinstated to their former positions.

“It’s time for us, as Canadians, to stop employers from ‘returning’ or ‘exchanging’ agriculture workers like some sort of commodity,” UFCW Canada national president Wayne Hanley said at that time. “The people who harvest our food deserve the same rights and protections as workers in every other major Canadian industry.”

UFCW said in a release Sept. 15 that the incident in Abbotsford followed another in Portage la Prairie, Man., in August in which six SAWP workers were removed from a vegetable farm workplace before an application for union certification could be filed with the Manitoba Labour Board.

The Manitoba Co-operator reported Sept. 25 that the Portage workers had been removed from their workplace by the Mexican consulate in Canada, which transferred them in August to a fruit operation near Toronto. The UFCW told the newspaper that the six were moved after another worker had been injured and all six alleged verbal abuse from their Manitoba employer.

UFCW told the Co-operator that the union certification application at Portage was withdrawn after the workers were moved to Ontario.

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