The View From Here – Seasonal Agricultural Workers deserve the same protection as other employees

by Tom Henihan

The labour laws of Canada should protect everyone employed in Canada especially when it comes to workplace injury and access to healthcare.

To have two classes of people labouring on the same farm, one protected if a case of injury the other losing all legitimacy if they suffer a similar fate.

It appears that in the event of a workplace accident or health emergency, the first response of those who employ labourers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) that brings in temporary foreign labourers to work on Canadian farms, is to get that worker out of the country with dispatch to avoid any responsibility.

It also appears that the SAWP liaison agents who are supposed to look out for the welfare of temporary foreign workers are just as keen to get injured workers out of the country.

A case that has recently gained attention is that of 39-year-old Sheldon McKenzie from Jamaica, a migrant farm worker who died a few months after suffering a serious head injury while working on a tomato farm in southern Ontario.

Instead of trying to save Sheldon McKenzie’s life and see that he received proper medical attention, every effort was made by the liaison officer and McKenzie’s employer to get the seriously injured father of two out of the country quickly to avoid all responsibility for his injury.

That McKenzie’s condition was grave: he was on life-support and had portion of his brain removed to reduce swelling apparently, left his employer and the SAWP officer unmoved.

Though shockingly callous and uncaring, Sheldon McKenzie’s case is not an isolated one.

Hundreds of injured temporary foreign workers have been shipped home through what is called in cold, sanitized, bureaucratic language “medical repatriation.”

McKenzie’s cousin Marcia Barrett from Winnipeg said that only because he had family in Canada to represent his interests did McKenzie avoid deportation and that more needs to be done to ensure the rights of labourers who come to Canada with the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Barrett says there was coercion from the SAWP liaison officer to send Sheldon McKenzie back to Jamaica.

Because he was no longer able to work, McKenzie lost his work visa and no longer qualified for health-care coverage.

It is a cruel irony, that when a migrant farm worker suffers an injury on the job and is no longer able to work, he or she loses their work visa and no longer qualifies for health care.

What is the point of having health care that is declared null and void the moment it is needed? Anyone legitimately employed on a Canadian farm who is injured on the job is morally entitled to have their injuries looked after under the Canadian health care system.

The Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and employers who use the program warrant greater scrutiny.

The program appears to belong to a questionable, underground economy that dehumanizes and discards with impunity injured migrant workers.

An employment program that gives workers such tenuous rights and allows employers to pronounce on the fate of their injured employees is a program not just open to abuse but designed to be abused. As Barrett told Go Public:

“It’s worse than slavery, they dispose of them.”

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