After the tragic death of Sheldon McKenzie, the migrant farmworker who was denied adequate healthcare and died of workplace injuries, Radical Action with Migrants in Agriculture (RAMA) and migrant farmworkers across the Okanagan Valley are expressing their deep concern for risks to workers’ health and safety. Sheldon, a Jamaican citizen, had been working in Canada as a temporary agricultural worker for close to a decade. Many of the barriers Sheldon faced accessing healthcare in Ontario are the same as those faced by migrant farmworkers in BC.
Migrant farmworkers on BC farms
In 2014, more than 6,600 migrant farmworkers laboured on B.C. farms. Most came through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), the primary agricultural stream of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Of these farmworkers, approximately 2,000 were employed in the Okanagan Valley. Most come from Mexico, but the number of Jamaican farmworkers in the Okanagan is rising every year.
As CBC’s Go Public notes, migrant farmworkers constitute a particularly precarious workforce, especially where matters of health are concerned. Not only is agriculture one of the most dangerous occupational sectors in the country, farmworkers are exempt from many of the laws that protect employees on the job in BC. Foreign farmworkers also have more limited access to health care than Canadian citizens or permanent residents and know that seeking treatment puts them at risk of losing their jobs and being deported.
“We know that death is closer”
The risks farmworkers face are numerous. Some of these occupational hazards include workplace accidents that could result in injury, long-term disability, and unemployment. Long days of repetitive movements on work sites with dangerous equipment and exposure to chemicals may also give rise to chronic health issues. Furthermore, many farmworkers report being rushed by their employers and supervisors, encouraged to work at unsustainable paces, sometimes while climbing up and down ladders and often without adequate protective gear.
“It’s not easy in Jamaica,” a Jamaican farmworker employed in the Kelowna area tells RAMA, under the condition that his name not be published. “But I won’t be coming back next year. Life is better than death, and the way they work us here in Canada, we know that death is closer when we go back to Jamaica.”
“Working in Canada means faster money, faster death,” he concludes.
A Jamaican farmworker previously employed in the South Okanagan describes his treatment as subhuman. “We are treated like machines, but we are not machines,” he insists. “You can put gas in the crane and make it run, but it is a machine. I am a human. You cannot take out my heart or my liver when they give out. When I’m dead, you can’t fix me up.”
Pesticides and other chemicals used on farm sites pose a major risk to farmworkers’ health. For this reason, BC’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulation and workers’ employment contracts both mandate that employers provide appropriate protective gear. However, workers from multiple farms across the Okanagan report that they were never given any safety equipment.
“I asked a guy if the chemicals they were spraying were harmful,” says one Jamaican worker in the Okanagan, who was in the orchard working when he noticed that they had begun to spray the trees. “He told me ‘not much’. But I know it’s harmful because when they sprayed, my face was itching and I had to spit a lot.”
“There are 10,000 more waiting in line”
According to Statistics Canada, agriculture ranks as the third most hazardous occupational sector in the country, with the highest number of deaths each year. In 2014 alone, WorkSafeBC documented 105 serious work-related injuries in BC agriculture. Five farmworkers were killed in workplace accidents across the province.
But RAMA is concerned that the true number of accidents and work-related injuries is likely much higher. “It’s difficult to know just how many foreign farmworkers have been hurt because they are often discouraged from reporting injuries or seeking medical help,” says Elise Hjalmarson, also an organizer with RAMA.
According to Hjalmarson, “RAMA has driven countless workers to chiropractors, doctors, and the emergency ward in cases where they didn’t feel they could turn to their boss or their liaison or consular representative for help. They are constantly reminded that they are replaceable, that there are 10,000 more workers in Jamaica waiting in line for their job in Canada.” Hjalmarson believes this only adds to the pressure workers face not to seek help, or claim lost hours or employment benefits with WorkSafeBC.
Migrant farmworkers should be covered by BC medical
As non-residents, migrant farmworkers are not covered by BC medical until they have been in the province for three months. This means that when they see a doctor during this time, they must pay in cash, even if they are covered by the private insurance provided by their employer.
RAMA is calling on the province to respect migrant farmworkers’ right to health care. The group would like to see the province take action to end “medical repatriations” and the deportation of injured workers before they have been assessed by a doctor and received the required medical care.
RAMA also urges the province to provide workers with access to BC medical care upon arrival so that they can see a doctor without involving their employers, relieving some of the pressure they feel to hide illnesses or injuries. Finally, RAMA is advocating an end to tied work permits so that foreign farmworkers are free to act in the interest of their own health by leaving abusive employers and unsafe work sites to find other work in Canada.
“To come to Canada to work, we have to do a medical exam,” says one worker. “They test our blood, our urine. If we don’t pass our exam, we can’t come to Canada. But we don’t see a doctor before they send us home. After months of working in Canada, how do we know we are fit to go back to Jamaica?”
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1. Share this press release on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on one of the social media icons below.
2. Call or email your MLA and demand:
- The province take steps to end the deportation of injured migrant farmworkers.
- Access to BC Medical upon arrival for all workers employed in BC agriculture.
Phone: (250) 765-8516
Phone: (250) 712-3620