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Mexican migrant workers sue Ottawa for alleged breach of Charter rights

A migrant worker from Mexico picks peaches at an orchard in Beamsville, Ont.

Glenn Lowson/glenn lowson The Globe and Mail

Three migrant workers from Mexico are suing the federal government and their former employer for allegedly breaching their Charter rights, a case that has implications for the tens of thousands of temporary workers who come to Canada every year.

The three men say they were fired without explanation by an Ontario fruit grower in August last year and put on a plane back to Mexico the next day. The Government of Canada is named as a defendant because the men were in the country under the government-administered Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

Andrew Lokan, one of the lawyers handling the case, said it's believed to be the first lawsuit of its kind in Canada.

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Manuel Ruiz Espinoza, Salvador Reta Ruiz and Jose Ruiz Sosa worked for the minimum wage of $10.25 an hour at Tigchelaar Berry Farms in the Niagara Region. On August 30, 2010 they were fired and the next day placed on a flight home with no period of notice or additional pay, according to the statement of claim. The suit alleges that the treatment they received breached their Charter right to be informed of allegations against them and to respond to those allegations. It also alleges breach of contract. The government has filed notice of its intent to defend the lawsuit.

Jeff Tigchelaar, the strawberry farm owner, said the allegations are untrue but wouldn't discuss any of the details while the matter is before the court.

"I am a farmer that's just trying to make an honest living and I treat people with respect," Mr. Tigchelaar said. "Everything here is false."

Mr. Lokan said there is a bigger issue at stake, how well Canada treats migrant workers that he describes as vulnerable.

"An employer who doesn't like an employee or disapproves of something the employee has done has this seemingly unilateral power to effectively deport them," Mr. Lokan said. "Their rights can be trampled on. They have no practical or effective recourse. We're asking for something very reasonable."

Mr. Lokan said the lawsuit is about entrenching the right to respond to allegations made by an employer, although it also seeks damages of $50,000 for each of the three men.

More than 27,000 seasonal workers come to Canada annually from Mexico and the Caribbean. In order to qualify an employer must first receive a labour market opinion from the government certifying that no Canadians were willing to take the advertised job.

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Terry Hunter, executive director of Community Legal Services of Niagara South, said the rights of temporary workers should be scrutinized, particularly since the number entering Canada every year has soared beyond 180,000. Most have work permits that tie them to one employer, which makes workers less likely to speak out against abuses, Mr. Hunter said.

"If the employer's unsatisfied you don't have the ability to shop your labour and you're at real risk of being bounced out of the country back to your country of origin," Mr. Hunter said. "It engenders fear in the migrant worker program."

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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