POLITICS

Migrant workers who survived crash that killed 11 others want to stay in Canada

10/02/2012 04:45 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST
TORONTO - Eight months after their bodies were mangled in a horrific crash that killed 11 people in southern Ontario, two Peruvian migrant workers said they hope to stay in Canada even if lingering injuries and debilitating pain keep them permanently on the sidelines.

Juan Ariza and Javier Abelardo Alba-Medina were among 13 poultry farm workers in a van that drove through a stop sign and into the path of a freightliner truck in the rural community of Hampstead, northeast of Stratford, on Feb. 6.

Ten workers from the van and the truck driver were killed in one of the province's deadliest collisions.

Speaking Tuesday with the help of an interpreter, Ariza and Alba-Medina said they are still undergoing treatment for their injuries and worry about their fate once their visas run out, particularly if they remain unable to work.

"It worries me a lot," Ariza, 35, whose visa expires in February of next year, said in Spanish.

"In the state that we find ourselves in, we would be a burden to our families, our country."

Alba-Medina, 38, said they haven't heard from federal officials regarding their immigration status, but advocacy groups are providing legal support to help them navigate the system.

His visa won't run out until February 2014, but he said the thought of leaving is disheartening.

"We've fought so hard to overcome all these struggles and then to go back to our country only to have all the little opportunities we've worked so hard to accomplish through rehabilitation taken away from us because of the circumstances surrounding injured workers like us back home," he said through the interpreter.

Several rounds of surgery for the pair have helped repair the damage caused by the collision, but both still rely on canes and painkillers to get them through the day, they said.

Both men have been living in a nursing home in London, Ont., while they undergo daily physiotherapy and counselling.

Their health-care expenses have been covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board through provincial health insurance.

But workers' rights advocates said it's common for those benefits to be cut off once workers are sent back to their country, even though they may still be unable to work.

"Our fear is that... this federal government will simply get Juan and Javier to the point of recovery and send them back home and forget about them," said Naveen Mehta, a lawyer with the United Food and Commercial Workers' union.

The union has helped raise nearly $250,000 for Ariza and Alba-Medina.

Canada is accountable for the men's condition and "the fair thing to do" is grant them and their families permanent residence, he said Tuesday at a panel discussion on the two workers' plight.

Chris Ramsaroop of the group Justicia For Migrant Workers said many workers who come in through the federal Temporary Foreign Workers program are shipped back to their homeland after receiving only a minimum of care.

The group is among several calling for changes to the program to protect the tens of thousands of migrant workers brought into Canada each year.

A spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said employers who fail to meet their obligations towards temporary foreign workers face penalties under federal immigration and provincial labour laws.

"(Temporary foreign workers) have access to the same recourse mechanisms as Canadian workers when it comes to labour and employment standards," Danielle Vlemmiks said in an email.

Workers are permitted to switch employers without fear of deportation provided they go through the application process anew, she said.

For many, however, "returning to their country of origin is also viable option," she said.

She did not address what happens to workers who are unable to work due to injury.

More than 110,000 workers have come in through the program so far this year, according to the latest figures from the department.