Kit Andres is relieved that a small group of migrant workers who were hurt while working in Canada will now receive compensation for their injuries.
“It’s great to see that their voices are finally being listened to. We’ve been talking about it for many, many years,” said Andres, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change’s representative in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Four workers who suffered injuries – including one who was working in NOTL – were awarded compensation by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal this fall.
The Lake Report published a detailed account of the ruling earlier this month.
The tribunal ruled that Workplace Safety and Insurance Board was wrong to deny claims of the workers, who were hired under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
In its Sept. 15 decision, the tribunal said the four workers were entitled to proper loss-of-earnings benefits and retraining support.
But while it represents a small win for the workers involved, the fight will continue to allow migrant workers to benefit from the same rights workers have in Canada, Andres said.
“As long as migrant workers are denied permanent status, the discrimination will continue to happen,” Andres said.
Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates, meanwhile, has renewed a call for Premier Doug Ford government’s to pass legislation he brought forward last December that would prevent workers from having to jump through hoops to receive proper compensation.
It was the second time Gates had brought the bill before the legislature. The first time was in 2019, when it passed first reading but was not passed before MPPs broke for the 2022 provincial election.
The workers, he said, were victims of “deeming,” an issue he has brought up on several occasions at Queen’s Park.
Deeming occurs when the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board decides a worker is able to earn money they are not actually earning, on the basis of suitable and available work they do not actually have.
Often the injured workers are no longer in the country.
For example, Gates said a worker earning $22 per hour may be deemed unfit to return to their old job but fit to do another, lesser-paying job at $16 per hour.
His bill would eliminate the practice, he said.
“It seems the (workplace board) is more interested in cutting off workers than helping them,” he said.
In its decision, the tribunal concluded the board had wrongly limited the injured seasonal migrant workers to only 12 weeks of long-term loss-of-earnings benefits.
Gates applauded that decision, saying that when workers are cut off, they often are left with no alternative but to apply for social assistance such as Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.
“It comes out of taxpayers’ money,” Gates said.
He called seasonal workers “the driving force” in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s agricultural sector.
“Without them we wouldn’t have a wine industry. We wouldn’t have fruit and produce,” Gates said.
Gates’ bill would amend the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act so the board would not determine earnings based on employment a worker doesn’t have, unless the worker were to refuse a job in bad faith.
“Injured workers deserve better. We should be providing the support they need, not punishing them when they are acting in good faith,” he said.
Andres agreed workers deserve better, but said change will only really come when workers are granted permanent resident status, which would entitle them to “each and every one of the rights” other Canadians have.
“It’s the number one mechanism where all other rights are accessed.” Andres said.
But, Andres added, without permanent residency, workers have little recourse.
“It’s an issue of power. When they are injured, (workers) don’t have the power to receive care.”
Instead, workers are often pressured to return to their home country when they are hurt – not just by Canada, but also by the country of origin’s officials.
“They’re interested in protecting the program. It is making money for the country,” Andres said.
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board said after the decision that it would review its process for deciding on claims for seasonal workers. Spokesperson Christine Arnott said the review will take about six months.
“The review will help ensure the (board) is taking a consistent and fair approach that recognizes the realities of people’s local labour markets after they return home,” Arnott said in an email to The Lake Report.
The process, she said, “will clarify how the claims are adjudicated and will determine whether previous decisions should also be adjusted.”
Andres, meanwhile, said to draw attention to the issue, the Migrants Rights Network has announced it is organizing two campaigns for Halloween: the Pumpkin Challenge and the Fighter Fear Challenge.
For the pumpkin event, workers and their supporters are encouraged to decorate a pumpkin utilizing the words “Status for All” and post photos on social media or deliver it to the office of their local member of Parliament.
In NOTL, that would be Conservative MP Tony Baldinelli, whose main office is at 107-4056 Dorchester Rd. in Niagara Falls.
For the second challenge, migrant workers are encouraged to share their stories about the fear they feel living in Canada as a migrant worker without permanent residency status.
More information on the challenges is available at migrantrights.ca.