Probe into Migrant Worker Safety Claims Promises Fair Treatment in Ontario

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After years of advocacy from four Jamaican migrant workers who experienced severe injuries at seasonal farm jobs, triggering a protracted appeal process, the provincial government has initiated a six-month review examining the handling of workplace safety claims filed under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

The investigation will delve into the disbursement of employee claims and examine the duration these injured migrant workers are eligible for payments. The insists came in response to the multilayered appeal by the group of workers, who faced permanent injuries in different farm-related incidents in Ontario between 2006 and 2017. They were informed by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) that they were only entitled to loss of earnings benefits equivalent to a maximum of 12 weeks upon their return to their home countries.

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Under the prevailing guidelines, WSIB offers compensation for off-work loss of earnings generally up to 12 weeks. The worker receiving Loss of Earning benefits is entitled to 85 per cent of the differential between their pre-accident earnings and the amount they can earn in “suitable and available” work post-injury.

The workers asserted in their appeal that they deserved increased compensation as the impact of their injuries stretched beyond the 12-week timeframe. The appeal culminated in their favor. Rosemarie McCutcheon, Chair of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board Appeals Tribunal, acknowledged in a decision in September the existence of systemic anti-Black racism and precarious employment inherent in the SAWP, which assigns farmers, primarily from Jamaica and Mexico, to work in Canada for eight months.

The decision has the potential to set a transformative precedent to enhance the lives of migrant workers, according to one advocacy group. Chris Ramsaroop, from Justice for Migrant Workers, believes this outcome to be a clear indication that the existing system is not functioning.

The struggle was particularly grueling for Leroy Thomas, a 48-year-old farmer from Jamaica, who slipped on a wet tire, falling several feet and suffering severe injuries, while working seasonally in Ontario for 16 years. His compensation ended when WSIB declared him fit for work, suggesting him a parking lot attendant role in Ontario, a vocation that doesn’t exist in his home country.

Thomas’s legal representative, Maryth Yachnin, has criticized WSIB’s unrealistic job suggestions, branding it a xenophobic system that treats migrant workers as disposable.

WSIB has now launched the review to establish consistency and fairness in handling claims for the SAWP program. The review will aim to provide clarity on claims and discern whether previous decisions warrant adjustments. WSIB has committed to contacting workers whose claims are under review within the coming weeks.

Going forward, it is essential to rectify unjust practices towards racialized migrant workers, opines Yachnin. Toronto labor lawyer Roberto Henriquez believes the review represents the agency’s acceptance and recognition of the tribunal decision and outlines its strategy to apply the findings.

Meanwhile, Thomas hopes that his struggle would trigger a wave of systemic change to the benefit of his fellow workers. He wants the system to do what it is supposed to: help injured workers unable to work.