In a world of increasingly precarious work, it seems grow-ops are no exception.
Low wages and erratic schedules have workers at a Markham-based medical marijuana producer seeking union protection, in what could be a precedent-setting fight for better work conditions in the burgeoning industry.
But the battle is becoming increasingly acrimonious, as the union seeking to represent workers alleges their employer has waged a campaign of intimidation.
According to a new claim filed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board and obtained by the Toronto Star, medical cannabis producer MedReleaf, which is currently licensed by Health Canada, “engaged in very serious misconduct” to undermine a vote to unionize held in early June.
“I was really surprised at the fear factor,” said Kevin Shimmin, a national representative of United Food and Commercial Workers.
That union already represents pot growers in four U.S. states. But currently, none of the 25 medical marijuana producers licensed by Health Canada are unionized, according to the Canadian National Medical Marijuana Association.
MedReleaf’s 52 employees, over half of whom are considered part-time casual labourers, began organizing in May after increasing concern over erratic hours, job security, and poor wages.
Casual workers, who Shimmin says were initially recruited by a temp agency, make about $13 an hour as trimmers and harvesters at the grow-op.
“They don’t know when they’re going to get work. At the same time, pretty much all of them have been there since the doors opened a year ago. So they’ve never been given permanent employment even though the company is doing extremely well,” he said.
But after making both federal and provincial applications for union certification, UFCW says workers were bullied and harassed into voting no in the provincial ballot, which was lost by a single vote.
Philip Manorath, who has a permanent job at the plant, said most of his casual colleagues initially supported unionization but that he noticed a changed in attitude in the lead up to the ballot.
“Maybe the last two days, they started to slip on the other side,” he told the Star.
The union claims Edna Dismaya, who operated the temp agency that initially recruited the workers, repeatedly told casual employees that they would lose their jobs if they unionized.
One text message from Dismaya to casual employees, submitted by UFCW as evidence to the labour board, warns workers that they could be laid off or terminated if they chose to unionize.
“Once the union succeeds in this company the investors who put the money to complete the renovation will pull out and may cause the company to shut down then everybody losses,” the text says.
In response to questions from the Star, MedReleaf said it “made no effort to conceal our hope that employees would remain non-unionized,” but said all its interactions with employees were “appropriate.”
It also said management was “unaware” of “efforts by third parties to communicate with employees” ahead of the vote.
The union says employees saw Dismaya on the company’s premises meeting with company executives in the week leading up to the vote, and that the company “took no meaningful steps to undo the damage her communications caused.”
But the ‘no’ vote has not killed off the possibility of MedReleaf’s pot-growers unionizing.
In a potentially precedent-setting decision, UFCW has asked the federal labour body to rule on whether medical marijuana workers fall under federal jurisdiction since the industry as a whole is regulated by Health Canada.
If the Canada Industrial Relations Board rules the union’s favour, UFCW will be able to hold another unionization vote. The result of a decision, which Shimmin hopes will come in next few weeks, will also help clarify which set of labour laws govern pot growers working lives.
Shimmin says MedReleaf has argued that its employees are agricultural workers and fall under provincial labour laws, which under the Employment Standards Act could exclude them from most basic entitlements like minimum wage and overtime pay.