Migrant farm workers are the backbone of Canada’s – and Niagara’s – agricultural sector.
Without the men and women who leave their families behind and travel from their home countries, the agricultural industry as we know it likely would cease to exist.
They come here to toil in our fields, to tend to our crops, to grow the fresh fruit and vegetables that are staples of our diet, to care for the vines that produce our region’s award-winning wines.
While much has improved, in the past they sometimes have had to live in substandard conditions, ones that many of us would not or could not tolerate.
And they come here to do jobs that ordinary, able-bodied Canadians generally have no interest in doing.
It is hard work, back-breaking work, done in the heat and sun and rain and cold. It is work that is crucial to our economy and for that we owe our migrant workers a debt of gratitude.
For the most part, ordinary Canadians seem to grasp the important role these workers play here. Yes, there are and there have been problems of exploitation and poor treatment of some workers.
There is no excuse for such behaviour and it needs to be rooted out. Like the proverbial “bad apples.”
But there’s another ongoing, high-profile, institutional form of discrimination that is happening in this sector – and it effectively is sanctioned and approved by arms of our provincial and federal governments.
We’re talking about how migrant workers who come to Canada and have the misfortune to be seriously hurt in a job-related mishap. Too often they are treated as a disposable commodity: Ship them home, replace them with another.
As The Lake Report documented in a story last week by Somer Slobodian, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board routinely cuts off long-term benefits to injured workers after as little as 12 weeks.
Because these men and women are migrant workers, after they are hurt, for a variety of reasons they generally return home to Jamaica or Mexico.
But the WSIB treats them like they’re still living in Ontario, not nearly 3,000 kilometres away.
And in some cases the WSIB tells them they should be able to take a job (such as a gas station attendant) here in Ontario. Even though they still might be seriously injured; even though they are nearly 3,000 kilometres away.
The ridiculousness of this situation was recognized by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal in the case of four workers – including one who worked in Niagara-on-the-Lake – and it ordered the WSIB to properly compensate those workers.
These four were injured in 2017, 2013, 2012 and 2006 respectively. These workers, considered so invaluable when toiling in our fields, have waited years for compensation.
It remains unclear if this ruling will be implemented widely in numerous other cases of economic injustice dispensed by the WSIB. But it should be.
Cases like that of Jeleel Stewart, injured more than 15 years ago at Mori Nurseries in NOTL, need to be addressed. Stewart, now 51 and in hospital in Jamaica, unfortunately is not doing well.
Compensation for him and his family needs to be forthcoming immediately. But there are many others in similar circumstances, routinely rejected after they are no longer useful.
This sort of treatment of once-valued workers needs to end and past cases require immediate attention.
The behaviour of our provincial and federal institutions in these instances should be an embarrassment to all Canadians. We need to do right by our migrant workers, especially when they need it most.