Migrant workers in Ontario granted parental leave benefits

DRESDEN, Ont. — More than 100 migrant farm workers employed in Ontario have been granted parental leave benefits after six years of legal wrangling.

Jennifer Pothier, executive director of Niagara North Community Legal Assistances, said the federal justice department, which represented the Employment Insurance Commission, conceded all 102 cases Sept. 16.

Paul Meinema, national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, was pleased with the result but is unhappy with the overall direction being taken by the federal government.

“The original decision to unilaterally deny their applications was arbitrary and unjust, as the federal court pointed out,” he said.

“We are grateful that this latest decision rights that wrong, but we are also dismayed that since the case began, the Harper government stepped in to permanently deny other seasonal workers access to parental benefits.”

The decision, which was made in 2012, restricted EI’s special parental, maternal and compassionate benefits to workers employed in Canada year round.

Migrant workers can be employed to a maximum of eight months at a time under the Seasonable Agricultural Workers Program.

SAWP workers contribute $3.4 million a year to Canada’s EI system but seldom derive any benefit. The 102 claims were worth $3,000 to $8,000 per worker.

The Federal Court of Appeal ordered the Employment Insurance Commission to rehear the cases nearly a year ago. In that decision, the court ruled that it was wrong to have dismissed the claims on the basis they had been submitted too late.

The decision argued that the workers were at a disadvantage because of long and arduous work schedules, social isolation, a lack of access to communication tools, fear of employer reprisal, poor English or French skills, low education and functional illiteracy.

The workers involved in the case were supported by the UFCW.

While farm workers in Ontario are not allowed to unionize, the UFCW operates support centres for them in several locations, including Virgil in the Niagara Region, where the majority of the claims were submitted.

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