A cannabis company in Canada is named in a class action lawsuit recently filed by two migrant farm workers who say their rights were violated under Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
The lawsuit, seeking a half billion dollars in compensation, was filed in Ontario against the Attorney General of Canada. It alleges that the federal government in Canada violated the workers’ rights to liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Charter.
The Plaintiffs, Kevin Palmer from Jamaica and Andrel Peters from Grenada, are agricultural workers who came to Canada on a series of fixed-term contracts as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP-Agricultural) programs. The lawsuit contends that the two workers brought this action on their own behalf and that of all other current or former migrant agricultural workers in the SAWP and the TFWP-Agricultural Stream over the past 15 years.
They allege that the imposition of “tied employment” in both programs violates the rights of Class Members under sections 7 and 15 of the Charter because it prevents workers from leaving their employment and finding a new job in Canada.
The lawsuit alleges that Peters, a 28-year-old father of two from Grenada, first came to Canada in 2018 through the SAWP on a five-month contract to work at a cannabis farm near Leamington that the lawsuit says was operated by federally licensed cannabis producer Tilray, formerly by Aphria. (In December, 2020, Aphria and Tilray announced plans for a merger, with Aphria losing its name in the deal.)
The lawsuit continues, stating that Peters arrived in April or May 2018 and worked until approximately October 2018 before returning to Grenada. Then, in April 2021, Peters signed a new two-year contract with Tilray. In late May 2022, Peters went back to Grenada for a two-week vacation, the first time he had been able to return home to see his family in three years, argues the lawsuit.
While in Grenada, Peters says he received a phone call from Tilray telling him his employment was being terminated without cause. A letter from Tilray followed, confirming that he was dismissed without cause, effective June 14, 2022.
Peters then received two weeks’ pay in lieu and notice, but he alleges he was not allowed to return to Canada to retrieve any of his belongings.
He says that while working at the cannabis farm, he lived in a bunkhouse on the farm property with around a dozen other migrant workers, with approximately six people sharing a bedroom.
Peters alleges he worked around 45 hours every week and was paid $14 per hour to start before receiving a raise to $15 an hour. He was not eligible for any overtime pay and had deductions for EI taken out of his paycheck. Despite this, he was unable to make any EI claims.
The Plaintiffs, in this case, estimate that the Government of Canada has collected more than $472 million in EI premiums from Class Members and their employers since 2008 while excluding these Class Members from ever benefiting from these services.
Peters also says he was concerned about the safety of some of his job duties, which included pruning, spraying the plants with chemicals, inspecting plants, and working in the processing room. Despite his stated concerns, he says he was not provided with a respirator, gloves, or similar safety equipment.
The lawsuit also alleges that while working at the Tilray facility during COVID-19, he and other migrant workers were not allowed to leave the farm property, although Canadian workers were.
That kind of tied employment, argues the lawsuit, restricts the freedom of migrant agricultural workers to resign from their employment and seek employment at a different agricultural employer. If a worker quits their job, they are unable to seek new employment in Canada and instead must leave the country.
The basis of such programs is rooted in racist ideology, the lawsuit contends, and was created “as a means to restrict the freedom of Black and Indo-Caribbean farmworkers on racial grounds,” detailing the foundation of this argument extensively.
“Canada’s prolonged collection of EI premiums from Class Members—impoverished workers from the global south—while systemically undermining their ability to access regular and sickness benefits, was a scheme that enriched it at the expense of those who needed those benefits the most. It has irreparably harmed the lives of Class Members, putting them at a demonstrably disadvantaged position in comparison to those who have the freedom to access benefits for which they pay premiums.”
A request for comment was sent to Tilray. They were not immediately available for response.
The entire lawsuit can be read here.