Mexico’s laws protect the right to freedom of association, but the development of active, independent unions has been hampered by the tripartite Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (CABs), which effectively act as gatekeepers for union strike action. CABs have long been accused of facilitating undemocratic workplace control, including by installing and defending employer-aligned “protection unions”, which are estimated to represent about 90% of unionized workers in the country. Such unions conclude collective agreements with little genuine worker input, in some cases before factories have even been opened. Governments have tolerated such schemes, which have the support of businesses, because they keep wages “competitive”. In 2019, the government introduced major labour reforms aimed at addressing these issues, ahead of the 2020 ratification of the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). It will be important to monitor the implementation of these changes, and any impact that they have on migrant workers. In this context, some workers resort to striking against their union’s will. Independent labour activists face a hostile environment, with threats and violence not uncommon. The current administration has set out labour reforms it says would improve democratic participation in unions and collective bargaining, but given the context, it is not surprising that until now Mexican trade unions have not been active on the issue of Mexican migrant worker rights in the recruitment cycle. The Mexican authorities also have a track record of suppressing worker organization among migrants in Canada. In the early 2010s a court in British Columbia found that the Mexican consulate in Vancouver “improperly interfered” in support of a Canadian company’s efforts to stop unionization. In recent years the government has however sought to work more closely with the UFCW union representing agricultural workers, cooperating over efforts to increase the proportion of women in the SAWP and to improve protections for migrant workers, including during the COVID pandemic.
Canada has active trade unions, many of which have sought to improve their representation of migrant workers since the increase of temporary workers in the 2000s and 2010s - with several positive initiatives by unions resulting in better outcomes for migrant workers, through new legislation or joint programmes with state agencies. For provinces and industry sectors where workers are allowed to unionize, migrant workers enter Canada covered by the provisions of the collective agreements negotiated by the unions. Unions in industry sectors like meatpacking and construction have also worked with employers to implement changes into their collective agreements, and have worked with governments to address areas of interest to migrant workers like facilitating the transition to permanent residence, and the provision of language courses. However, the ability of migrant workers in Canada to unionize depends on the province and sector in which they are working. Importantly for the Mexico- Canada corridor, agricultural workers in Ontario and Alberta are entirely prevented from unionizing while other provinces heavily limit the right to freedom of association. Canada was censured by an ILO expert committee for violating the right of migrant workers in Ontario to freedom of association, but a legal challenge to the prohibition brought by the UFCW, which represents Canada’s agricultural workers, was defeated in Canada’s Supreme Court in 2011. The ILO has maintained its position on this legal block, which Canadian unions say is a critical factor in undermining the protection of agricultural workers, alongside the closed work permit. At a policy level, the SAWP’s annual review meeting between the two governments and Canadian employers, has no mechanism for direct input by migrant workers, worker organizations, or labour unions. Employers argue that since agricultural workers are not unionised, it is not appropriate for Canadian unions to represent workers.
Recommendations to the Mexican and Canadian governments:
- Allow worker representation and participation at SAWP annual meetings, in line with ILO guidance on bilateral agreements.
Recommendations to Canada’s provinces and territories:
- Remove restrictions on freedom of association that prevent migrant or other workers from exercising their legitimate right to form or join trade unions.