Supreme Court of Canada upholds Ontario law denying unions for agricultural workers

Protections in law allowing employee associations satisfies charter rights, says Canada’s top court
|employmentlawtoday.com|Last Updated: 05/10/2011

An Ontario law that denies agricultural workers the right to join a union and collectively bargain does not violate their right to freedom of association to pursue better working conditions, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

Farm workers in Ontario were given a labour relations regime separate from that of other workers in the province under the Agricultural Employees Protection Act, 2002 (AEPA), which excluded them from the Labour Relations Act (LRA). The AEPA was a response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2001 decision in Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General), which found previous legislation governing agricultural workers was unconstitutional as it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The AEPA grants farm workers the right to form and join an employees' association, to participate in its activities, to assemble, to make representations to their employers through their association on their terms and conditions of employment, and the right to be protected against interference, coercion and discrimination in the exercise of their rights. However, they cannot join a regular trade union for the purposes of collective bargaining due to the unique needs of the agricultural industry, such as the damage work stoppages could do to the industry regarding things like animal care and processing perishable food products.

In 2008, the United Food and Commercial Workers launched a constitutional challenge on the basis the AEPA infringed farm workers' rights under certain sections of the charter by failing to provide effective protection for the right to organize and bargain collectively as well as excluding them from the protections workers in other sectors received under the LRA. The Ontario Superior Court dismissed the application, but the Ontario Court of Appeal allowed the appeal in 2009 and declared the AEPA to be constitutionally invalid.

The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which allowed the appeal and reinstated the trial court’s finding that the AEPA did not violate the charter rights of agricultural workers. The top court found the AEPA allowed for a process in which employee associations could make representations to employers and the employers had to negotiate in good faith, as required under the charter’s freedom of association

"We hope that all concerned proceed on the basis that the charter confirms a right to collective bargaining, defined as ‘a process of collective action to achieve workplace goals,’ requiring engagement by both parties. Like all charter rights, this right must be interpreted generously and purposively. The bottom line may be simply stated: Farm workers in Ontario are entitled to meaningful processes by which they can pursue workplace goals," said Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in the decision.

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