Denying Health Coverage to Injured Migrant Workers is Shameful
Nanky Rai, Abeer Majeed, Jim Deutsch, Brendan Bailey, Miriam Garfinkle
In December 2005, Javier Alonzo de Leon experienced a stroke provoked by a workplace accident. His employer attempted to deport him instead of ensuring that Javier received the appropriate medical care he needed. Community pressure prevented Javier’s deportation but a few days later, he experienced a second full stroke that left him with lifelong disability preventing him from working in the same way. Javier was a seasonal agricultural worker from Mexico who did not have access to provincial health coverage in British Columbia. He is now back in Mexico without proper medical attention or financial support.
Imagine getting injured at work, and instead of going to a hospital or seeing your health-care provider, you are deported from Canada. This is why we, as health professionals, are outraged by the Ontario government’s intentions to challenge an independent tribunal decision to provide OHIP coverage for injured migrant workers.
The Ontario government is seeking to end health-care coverage for Kenroy Williams and Denville Clarke, two Jamaican migrant farm workers who were seriously injured in a car accident along with seven others while being driven by their employer in August 2012. One of the nine passengers was killed in this car accident in Oakland, Ont. As a result of the exploitative nature and disabling conditions of migrant labour in Ontario, migrant workers are at a greater risk of injuries and death.
The International Labour Organization identifies agriculture as a leader in workplace accident rates, along with mining and construction. Migrant farm workers suffer terrible working and living conditions. Exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides, and working in extreme temperatures for prolonged hours are just some of the occupational hazards migrant farm workers face on a daily basis. Musculoskeletal injuries are some of the most common injuries seen at migrant health clinics. Migrant farm workers often live in crowded accommodation with little in the way of sanitation facilities provided by employers and are isolated from communities as well as separated from their families. Additional exploitative conditions include daily experiences of racism, being tied to employers with restrictions on where they can live and work, being denied access to permanent residency and basic rights such as unionization and voting. As health professionals, we recognize that exploitation leads to poor health.
Migrant workers have overall worse health outcomes than the average person and this must be analyzed within a broader lens of globalization that forces people into poverty and to migrate and accept any work, no matter how dangerous or exploitative. We must also understand our own government’s and Canadian corporations’ role in creating the very conditions that force people out of their homes in the first place. Countries in the Global North benefit from an international economic system that profits off of migrant labour by having workers contribute to a tax and social safety net to which they are denied access. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that migrants living without full immigration status generated a surplus totalling $115 billion from 2002-2009 which directly supports social programs such as medicare and social security – programs migrants can’t access. The violence of this system is most visible when migrant workers are seen as an easily replaceable pool of labour that can be deported and replaced by others when injured or killed rather than given access to social services that they help fund.
Justicia for Migrant Workers has reported that more than 50 migrant workers have died in Ontario since 1996. This includes the 11 farm workers killed last year in a traffic accident near Hampstead. It includes Paul Roach and Ralston White, two Jamaican migrant workers who were killed in a confined space accident at work in September of 2010. It also includes Jamaican migrant worker Ned Livingston Peart, who was crushed to death while working on a tobacco farm near Brantford in August 2002.
The Ontario government’s stance on denying health coverage to injured migrant workers on the basis of their immigration status is deeply unethical and shameful. We as health professionals demand that the Ontario government provide access to full health coverage and due compensation to workers and families for injuries sustained and lives lost. Furthermore, we demand the Ontario government push at the federal level for access to permanent residency for its migrant workers.
Nanky Rai is a medical student and activist in Toronto. Dr. Abeer Majeed is a family doctor and an activist. Dr. Jim Deutsch is a psychiatrist. Brendan Bailey is a nursing student. Dr. Miriam Garfinkle is a community health physician in Toronto.