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February 15, 2012

Migrant workers in Ontario are terribly vulnerable

Luisa D’Amato

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The police say "driver error" was to blame for that horrible crash near Hampstead this week that killed a vanload of agricultural migrant workers from Peru.

But they’re missing the point.

True, the driver of the van, himself a migrant worker, didn’t have the proper licence for a vehicle that big. True, he didn’t stop at the stop sign, which caused an oncoming truck to plow into the side of the van, killing 11 people including both drivers.

But you can’t get at the whole truth by looking at the driver’s actions in isolation. You have to look at the relationship between Ontario’s 20,000 migrant farm workers and their employers to get the whole picture. And often, it’s not pretty.

Migrant workers come here from poor countries. Typically, they’re men with families to support. They want a home of their own, or to pay the fees for their children to go to school.

They desperately need these low-paid, physically hard jobs that Canadians won’t do, catching chickens or picking vegetables, because even our minimum wage is much more than they could hope to get at home.

“It’s this, or absolute poverty,” says Janet McLaughlin, a health studies professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in migrant workers.

When they get here, these workers are terribly vulnerable. They have to pay from their meagre cheques for benefits they will never collect, like employment insurance and pensions. If they get injured, they are quickly replaced. If they complain and are fired, they can’t stay in Canada. Their visas specify that they can only be here if they work for the particular employer.

“They’re willing to do almost anything to keep their jobs,” McLaughlin said. “They’re not going to talk back to their employers.”

Even when they’re not working, migrant workers have little control over their lives. Their home and transportation to and from work are arranged by the employer.

So ask yourself this: If an employer provides a van and tells one of the workers to drive everybody home in it, whose job is it to make sure that the van is safe and the driver is qualified? What power does the driver have to say no, even if he understood it was dangerous?

In a 2008 survey of 600 migrant workers in Ontario, 57 per cent said they needed transportation to get to work. When asked “Are there enough seatbelts for all the passengers?” 46 per cent said there were not.

This compromises the safety of the workers, but the authorities pay scant attention. “This is really an area that’s under-regulated,” McLaughlin said. “It would be very rare for someone to show up at the farm and inspect the vehicles.”

McLaughlin argues that the situation creates a powerlessness for these workers that is part of the structural relationship between them and the farmers and food processors who hire them.

This week’s collision made headlines all over the country because of the high number of dead. But almost every year, migrant workers die in traffic accidents, in ones, twos and threes, because their whole lives here are hazardous. The news media hardly notice.

In 2005, for example, two migrant workers near Delhi rode bicycles into town one evening to phone their families. The bicycles, provided by the farmer, came with no helmets, no reflective gear, and no lights, but this was the only way the workers could get to a phone. The workers, William Bell and Desmond McNeil, were hit from behind by a speeding car and were killed.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the situation surrounding the terrible events at Hampstead this week. The Peruvian workers’ employer, Brian’s Poultry Services of Mildmay, isn’t speaking to the media. We need a coroner’s inquest to help us understand how we might prevent such a tragedy again. If one is called, I think it will become clear that when a dangerous situation becomes deadly, it’s foolish to think of it as merely an accident., February 11, 2012

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