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Employers should take note – Unions are using ever more creative means to engage potential members, especially in sectors with low rates of unionization. For example, the United Steelworkers are helping temporary foreign workers employed by a Tim Horton’s franchise in British Columbia in their application to the Human Rights Tribunal.

The employees claim that their employer required them to repay part of their earned overtime pay, sometimes by actually driving them to the bank and waiting while they cashed their pay cheques. The human rights complaint is grounded in their status as temporary foreign workers, who are vulnerable to exploitation because of the nature of their immigration status.

Unions have found the service sector to be a particularly hard nut to crack – their success in organizing restaurants, coffee shops, etc. has been limited at best. Workers in this sector have historically been young, transitory and relatively unengaged in the workplace, making it difficult to persuade them to sign union membership cards. Therefore, to raise awareness of the benefits of union membership, savvy Unions have undertaken social justice projects, such as the current one in BC, without formally obtaining representation rights for employees.

The Steelworkers have also supported employees of the Royal Bank (another sector with low rates of unionization) who resisted the Bank’s requirement that they train foreign workers to fill roles formerly performed by full-time employees of the Bank.

Employers, particularly in these hard-to-organize sectors, should be aware that Unions are actively looking for opportunities to assist employees in making claims for human rights, occupational health and safety and/or employment standards violations. By leveraging these issues to advocate on behalf of employees, Union organizers build trust and familiarity with employees who otherwise might never think of signing a Union membership card.

The moral of this story is simple – if you’re trying to remain Union-free, it is critical to comply with your legal obligations. Perhaps even more importantly, you should ensure that your employees feel that they are being treated fairly. Otherwise, the idea of Union representation may look a bit too attractive!

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