Migrant Workers Rights Will Test Rookie St. Catharines MP

Liberal St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle (2nd in on left) promoting Niagara Wines on CTV Power Play Dec, 2015.

Migrant Workers Rights Will Test Rookie St. Catharines MP

Rookie St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle rode the Trudeau wave into office late last year, upsetting the incumbent, and heavy favourite, Conservative Rick Dykstra. Bittle quickly moved into the vacated Dykstra office, an interesting move for an MP running on a “change” message. Before Chris had internet or phones running in the office (phones didn’t come til February 1st), he was already busy plotting his course as the new political face in Federal politics for St. Catharines. One of his first moves — shoring up a support position for the wine industry — came as Chris was a guest on CTV’s Power Play in December, showcasing Niagara wines and the Niagara wine industry.

The move was an important one for the wine industry in Niagara, a powerful lobby that was intent on getting their message across immediately after his win. That lobby is focused on keeping all levels of government subsidy and support in their industry and are also keen on leveraging infrastructure funds back into their industry.

All of this was clearly a welcome sign for them, but confusing considering there are no actual wineries within Bittle’s riding. Although the town’s Grape and Wine Parade looms large in the City, the wineries all exist in surrounding ridings in the region.

The other massive elephant in the room — the industry relies heavily on migrant workers, a growing labour class in Canada that does not have access to full labour rights.

Bittle, a board member of the Quest Community Health Clinic, relayed in an exchange that he is no stranger to issues facing migrant workers in the community. Quest joined with the Niagara Migrant Workers Interest Group in 2011 to fill service gaps for health care for migrant workers locally — heading out with translators and health professionals to clinics in Virgil.

Although Bittle relays that he knows of the issues facing migrant workers in the region, the issue has yet to come up in his promotional efforts on behalf of the wine industry. To complicate matters further for Bittle, he was recently named to the Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights. These two positions will continue to converge.

Estimates place around 3,000 migrant workers in Niagara yearly, with that number growing. Migrant workers and advocates have been marking 2016 with a renewed call for a recognition of rights as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), the precursor to the current Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP).

They kicked off the “Harvesting Freedom” campaign in Ottawa last month holding a press conference and hand delivering a petition to Premier Justin Trudeau calling for full labour rights and residency on arrival. Organizing around this campaign for the year, they plan to hold a pilgrimage from Leamington, On to Ottawa later this year that will land in Ottawa on Thanksgiving weekend. The ambitious project is in response to inadequate housing, a lack of labour rights, unsafe work conditions, restricted access to benefits they pay for and the constant threat of deportation.

On the issue of migrant workers rights, Bittle’s rhetoric of “real change” will face a challenge in 2016. Just last year the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled on a landmark case concerning migrant workers who were sexually harassed while working for Presteve Foods in Wheatly, On. Their award was the largest granted in the history of the Tribunal, and calls for further access to justice are escalating as advocates and labour unions continue to coordinate and organize. That work includes the Niagara Region, and those same industries which Chris Bittle has spent much of his brief political career promoting.

As “real change” has swept Ottawa, Bittle and his peers on the Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights may want to revisit a grim and horrific tragedy in the history of migrant worker labour in this country. Today marks the 4 year anniversary of the Hampstead crash — a vehicle crash that took the lives of 10 migrant workers and a truck driver. Packed tight in an unsafe van, and driving home after long hours at a poultry farm catching chickens, the vehicle collided with a flatbed truck. Although the crash stands as one of the deadliest in the history of the Province, and although the three surviving migrant workers are adamant that an inquest is necessary — the Province refused. That tragedy spurred no action to even investigate how situations like this could be avoided or how working conditions and protections for migrant workers could be increased.

Trying to navigate these roles — board member for Quest health, Parliamentary Committee member on Justice and Human Rights and supporter of the wine industry — will be a real test for Chris Bittle in his first term as an MP for St. Catharines. The risks and injuries that migrant workers face in the wine industry is studied and well known, as is the documented history of injustice that all migrant workers have faced in this country. As a rookie MP, who claims to be aware of these issues, he will be expected to respond. As he sets into his new digs in the office of the former Conservative MP Rick Dysktra, the issue of migrant workers rights will be a mark of how much has changed — beyond just the name on the front of the building.

Memorial Marked by Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW) at Hampstead Crash Site, 2013.