04/07/2014 05:30 EDT | Updated 06/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada, Stop Denying Migrant Workers Health Care When They Need It Most

Mark Miller via Getty Images
Kenroy Williams and Denville Clarke came to Canada to do back-breaking work in our farms, but when they needed us most, we turned our backs on them. Along with 25,000 people that come each year from Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America, they traveled thousands of miles away from their home in Jamaica to come and pick our fruits and vegetables for minimum wage as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Maybe they knew that migrant farm workers generally live in cramped quarters on the farms where they work. They share these accommodations with many other workers often isolated from regular society due to language and cultural barriers. Maybe they knew of the abuses reported by other migrant workers such as being expected to work 12-15 hours a day with no overtime. Often they use dangerous chemicals without the appropriate equipment or training. Fighting for their rights is difficult with employers that can send workers home without a right to appeal and deny them re-entry. They might even have known that migrant workers pay income taxes and contribute to CPP and EI but are denied EI benefits. On top of all this, no matter how many years they were to put in, Kenroy and Denville, like other migrant farm workers, would never be given a path to Canadian citizenship.

But they came anyway, out of desperation in a global situation where people are often forced out of their homes to find work. They came to spend up to eight months a year away from their families in an effort to support them financially, and asked little in return. 

What they probably didn't know is that on August 9, 2012, they would be involved in a car accident while being driven to the farm by their employer, and that the government would deny them the healthcare they needed to recover. They were with seven other workers, one of whom was killed. Kenroy suffered a traumatic brain injury as well as neck, chest and back injuries, while Denville suffered both spine and whiplash injuries. Despite the injuries having been sustained directly in the line of work for which we brought them here, Canada has decided these men, their lives and their health is disposable, and we have cut off their health insurance leaving them without access to care. As a Canadian physician, I am ashamed of this decision.

Given the situation and our clear responsibility around these men's injuries, an independent tribunal, on two occasions ordered the government to reinstate coverage which it did temporarily. Instead of recognizing this as the moral answer, the province shamelessly fought back for its right to deny healthcare to these men, and on March 31, 2014, their OHIP fully expired. The courts upheld laws which say that health insurance is linked to work permits, but even they knew this decision was wrong stating that if there is a gap in the health coverage, this should be negotiated between the feds and the province. 

We have seen this before. There have been many stories of migrant farm workers being injured on the job and being put on a plane in return. If they decide they wish to stay to access healthcare, they are declared 'absent without leave' making them inadmissible to the program in the future, and their healthcare gets cut off at the end of their work permit. As soon as Kenroy and Denville were injured, they were no longer seen as workers whose labour was useful, but rather as a liability.

So we say to Kenroy and Denville -- thanks for your sweat, your back-breaking labour, for the fruits and vegetables you put on our plates. But when it comes to your poor living conditions, your precarious and unsafe work conditions and your rights, we can't help you. While you are here working for us for minimum wage, on our grounds and on our terms, if you are injured potentially impacting your entire future livelihood, we will not provide you healthcare from the system you pay into, and it's time for you to go. 

It's time for us to do better. We must face the reality of people like Kenroy and Denville who are punished as a result of laws that do not recognize the situation on the ground. We must address the unfair conditions under which we bring people over for this program, and provide them the services they are due. Canada set out to have a universal healthcare system that covers everybody, and it's about time that we did just that.

To learn more about how you can get involved, contact Justicia for Migrant Workers and Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.


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