By: Chris Ramsaroop
December 18th is declared International Day of Migrant Workers. This United Nations -recognized event is celebrated around the world to acknowledge the sacrifices and struggles of the millions of migrant workers – migrants like Luton Forbes, a farm worker and father of two from Jamaica whose back injury ended his ability to work after 20 years of toiling in the fields of Ontario.
Sadly government sanctioned programs such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, a government migration scheme that brings tens of thousands of migrants, fails to protect migrant workers when they become sick or injured. Rather than provide the services for injuries sustained here, the workers are sent home where bread earners like Luton, disabled and unable to work, spiral deeper into poverty. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) has failed in its mandate to provide healthcare for injured and sick migrants, leaving the most precarious and vulnerable workers to fend for themselves.
Unlike workers in Ontario, upon returning home, injured workers across the Caribbean and Mexico must pay upfront for medical services, prescription medicines, and transportation. A further outrage is that injured migrants benefits are cut off. Furthermore, injured migrants generally can’t afford such things as transportation costs and upfront costs cause workers to miss medical appointments, which leads to deteriorating health.
Injured workers and migrant worker activists pushed the WSIB to alleviate these dire conditions. As a result, WSIB agreed to pay upfront as they would do in Ontario. However, Luton’s experience as well as the experience of many other injured farm workers tell a different story.
The Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO), a community legal clinic, has identified how the WSIB system is failing migrants in providing access to medical service. The current actions of the WSIB seem to advance the idea that black and brown migrant workers are disposable when their bodies are no longer useful to Canadian society. It is imperative to end systemic racial discrimination that dehumanizes and denies dignity to migrant farm workers.
For migrants who remain in Canada in search of justice, this means surviving on the goodwill of others.
During the holidays, many of us send remittances and barrels home to our families. We see this as one of the primary way of providing for our families back home. We also shoulder the burden of supporting the sick and elderly – those who can no longer help themselves. Usually this takes either a charitable approach but this holiday season I am hoping that we also take the opportunity to tell those with power that charity is not enough! No amount of charity can address the failure of our social safety net to provide for the most vulnerable.
Policies meant to provide a hand up are instead having the opposite effect, driving people further into poverty – much like what obtained in the time of the Great Depression. Much of what we hear in the daily news – the opioid crisis, homelessness, unemployment, precarious work – have their roots into a workers compensation system, which fails to provide for injured workers when they need it most.
The neglect seems willful because the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act clearly states that workers are not meant to pay for costs of their healthcare. S. 33(2) requires the WSIB pay for the worker’s health care and S. 33(5) prohibits health care providers from requesting that a worker pays for health care or any related service provided under the insurance plan.
We call on the Federal Government to end the closed work permit system and ensure migrant workers and their families can live in Canada as permanent residents. For our workers’ compensation system, it’s critical that it ends its discriminatory practices and provide injured migrants the choice and means to stay in Ontario to receive medical treatment. It must provide equal services to migrants as they do for Canadian workers – something it is required by law to do.
To drive home the point of the precarious lives of migrant workers, Justice for Migrant Workers and allied organizations such as the Injured Workers Action for Justice have been exerting pressure on the powers that be to demand that those who put food on our tables are treated with decency and dignity
Dozens of concerned community members, immigration rights activists, and injured workers have engaged in a sustained campaign urging the WSIB to change its practices and live up to the spirit and letter of the law.
To commemorate the International Day of Migrants, a community delegation was organized to address the Federal Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Marco Mendocino. Approximately two dozen people comprised this delegation. The minister’s staff was told of how migrants being tied to one employer – a virtual system of indentured labour. Injured migrants spoke about their own experiences and those of other injured workers who face a life of poverty and misery when they are sent home.
Canadian injures workers spoke in anger against the differential treatment that migrants receive because of their precarious immigration status and families of migrants spoke about their concern for how their kin was treated by both Canadian Farmers and government officials alike.
The overall conclusion is that the program may work for Canada’s agricultural industry but it catastrophically fails the migrant workers who labour under this system.
I encourage people to engage in this simple action – sign the following petition to demand permanent residency for migrant workers. Go to http://chng.it/nznJgGHd to access the petition.
Send a message to the Tom Teahan, President and CEO of the WSIB, demanding fairness for injured migrant worker. You may email Steve_jackson@wsib.on.ca and ask him to forward to Tom Teahan
Contact the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendocino and urge him to end the abuses that migrant workers face in Canada.