Migrant workers make our agricultural industry viable. Why do we treat them as disposable?

Posted on March 21, 2022 in Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
March 21, 2022.   By Maryth Yachnin, Chris Ramsaroop, Contributors

This March 21, injured migrant workers are demanding to be treated with fairness and respect. It’s time the WSIB heard their calls for justice.

We write today, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism, to demand justice for migrant farm workers who are hurt or sickened on the job. What the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) does to injured migrant workers is deplorable and discriminatory.

Migrant farm workers do some of the most dangerous work in Ontario; this has been especially true during the pandemic. Last year, 2,852 farm workers suffered COVID-19 infections from their work, making them second only to health-care professionals for COVID risk.

Working in rural and predominantly white communities, migrant workers are packed in bunkhouses, separated from their families and tied to a single employer through a draconian work-permit system. These racialized workers make our agricultural industry viable, yet we dispose of them when they get hurt on the job.

The WSIB fails migrant workers. They get unequal health care, fewer return-to-work services, and less compensation than other agricultural workers. WSIB statistics reveal that, while migrant workers make up almost one-third of agricultural injury claims that require health-care treatment, they make up six per cent of the cases where the WSIB recognizes a worker’s permanent injury.

While unfair to all workers, the WSIB’s practice of “deeming” is Kafkaesque when applied to migrant workers. Injured migrant workers are no longer wanted or welcome as farm workers in Ontario and are repatriated. And yet, the WSIB tells migrant workers they are able to work in Ontario in a lighter role, such as cashier, call centre worker or gas bar attendant. The WSIB pretends migrant workers restore their wages as if they were working in these jobs — even though they have been sent back home and are legally prevented from working in these jobs.

Leroy Thomas, who worked many years in the Haldimand-Norfolk region, is one such worker who suffered because of deeming. Thomas worked for 16 years in Ontario picking fruits and vegetables. Five years ago, his foot slipped while climbing into a wagon, and he fell on the concrete below, injuring his spine. It was a painful and stressful experience. Thomas would often break down into tears, worried about what his boss was thinking and about his future on the farm worker program if he didn’t get better.

Thomas was sent home to Jamaica before he recovered. Once “deemed,” he lost his benefits and has had no way to support himself nor his family. Losing his livelihood as a farmer and a barber because of his injury in Canada, Thomas faces persistent poverty, often going without food and health care for his injury. With no realistic way of restoring his earnings or finding work he can do in Jamaica with his disability, his life has spiralled downward. For Thomas and other injured migrants, deeming is an egregious practice. After being hailed as essential workers to protect Canada’s food system, our workers’ compensation system abdicates its responsibility to them.

Employers — who are supposed to pay for the consequences of workplace injuries and disease — instead benefit financially from the WSIB’s discriminatory policies. Employers are getting richer on the backs of injured workers. This year, the government has decided to give a $1.5 billion rebate to employers, rather than support injured workers. The WSIB and employers have been pocketing money because of discriminatory policies, like those that exclude migrant workers from compensation.

Deeming should be abolished for Canadian and migrant workers alike. Rather than punish workers for being sick or injured because of work, we should be investing in a WSIB system that prioritizes the well-being of injured workers over profits.

This March 21, injured migrant workers are saying enough. They are demanding to be treated with fairness and respect. It’s time the WSIB heard their calls for justice.

Maryth Yachnin is a staff lawyer with the Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario. Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers.


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