By TOM GODFREY
Injured farm worker Kenroy Williams survived a crash that killed a co-worker while they were travelling to work and then had to fight his employer to avoid being sent back to Jamaica penniless to look after his five children.
“One worker was killed and eight others survived the vehicle roll-over,” recalled Williams. “Many of the survivors were sent home by their employers soon after and I said ‘I am not going home in this condition’.”
Williams, 40, and his fellow cherry pickers, were being driven to work by their employer in August 2012 when their vehicle was hit on a rural road near Oakland, Ont. One worker was killed in the incident.
Williams and fellow Jamaican worker, Denville Clarke, refused to leave Canada before the end of their contracts claiming they could not receive proper medical care at home. They have received WSIB benefits and are now in litigation seeking an insurance settlement.
Williams said he was treated at the scene for muscle tissue injuries.
“Some workers were sent home by employers since they could not work due to their injuries,” he said. “I just said I am not leaving and refused to leave.”
He suffers from chronic back, head, leg problems and recurring headaches.
Williams’ co-workers are among hundreds of injured workers from the Caribbean and elsewhere who get hurt in Ontario farms and are quickly and unfairly returned home by their employers to avoid them claiming workplace injury benefits, says a group that helps the men.
The workers, many from the Caribbean and Mexico, are driven by their employers to the airport and sent home without proper paycheques soon after their injury to avoid them from filing for claims and benefits from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), alleges Jessica Ponting, an official at IAVGO Community Legal Clinic.
The clinic, and Justice for Migrant Workers, another support group, held a panel discussion last weekend at College Street United Church to bring awareness to the difficulties faced by injured migrant workers.
There are about 20,000 temporary foreign workers who come to Ontario each year to work in agricultural and dairy farms.
Ponting estimate hundreds of injured workers are returned home yearly. She said accurate statistics are hard to obtain since many farms do not file reports. Her clinic is representing about 20 workers who are appealing decisions or seeking stays to remain in Canada.
“Many injured workers are sent home before an investigation is completed,” Ponting said. “We believe the migrant farmworkers do some of the most dangerous work in Ontario.”
She said 15 migrant workers were killed on the job in 2012.
Ponting said an injured worker, like Williams, who sends his family all his earnings, will likely be given a couple weeks wages on his return home.
“In many cases the injured worker does not want to complain,” Ponting told Share. “Many of these workers have been coming here for years and if they complain the employer will not bring them back.”
Her clinic usually intervenes in cases in which the worker is being returned home after an injury on the job. The group will file an appeal to the WSIB or seek redress on behalf of the workers.
“With limited exceptions, the WSIB disposes’ of injured migrant workers to a life of poverty and ill health even though they were injured as a result of their labour in Ontario,” she said. “The practices of the WSIB prevent migrant workers from speaking out.”
The groups are calling for the WSIB to give injured migrant workers the choice and means to stay in Ontario for health care.
But, WSIB spokesperson Christine Arnott said migrant workers are entitled to the same benefits as any worker in an Ontario workplace covered by the WSIB.
“The WSIB provides support for injured workers through wage-loss benefits and full health care coverage,” Arnott told Share. “Workers continue to receive WSIB loss of earnings benefits until they have recovered sufficiently to return to work.”
She said in the case of a fatality, for surviving spouses and families, the WSIB covers funeral and burial expenses, as well as financial support and bereavement counselling.