Sick, fired and deported: the fate of injured or ill migrant farm workers in Ontario

September 18/2014

For migrant farm workers in Ontario, getting sick or injured can mean losing a job and getting deported, a practice that raises concerns for human rights and health equity, according to a study by Dalla Lana School of Public Health researchers.

"Medical repatriation is about getting sick, fired and deported all at once," said Dr. Aaron Orkin, a clinical public health research scholar at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and lead author of the study.

"This is a phenomenon without comparators: there are few other Canadian settings where workplace injuries and illnesses result in both deportation and employment termination without further medical care or income security," he continued.

About 40,000 migrant workers, primarily from Latin America and the Caribbean, are approved to work in Canada's agricultural industry every year through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, most through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

"Although [migrant] farm workers are entitled to receive health care before the termination of their employment and repatriation, in practice, workers are sometimes repatriated immediately, without receiving such care," said Dr. Orkin.  Donald Cole, Global Health Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is the study’s senior author.

The study, published in CMAJ Open on September 17, is based on migrant farm worker data that is privately held by Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, not by Canadian public authorities. The study authors accessed records for the years 2001–2011 through a Freedom of Information request, after repatriation data were entered into evidence in an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal hearing into the 2002 death of migrant worker Ned Peart. The authors note that the source of information for this study is a private employment database and not a medical database, so it may not deliver ideal information about repatriation of migrant workers or their health conditions.

"Without any public records or statistics, there can be no oversight to ensure that sick and injured workers are treated fairly," said Dr. Orkin.

Migrant farm workers are considered to be at work while living at their employer-provided temporary lodgings in Canada and during travel to the farms where they work. Although they have health insurance during their employment in Canada, migrant workers face challenges in accessing health care. These include language barriers, long work hours, lack of knowledge about the health care system and limited transportation.

"This study sheds light on this complex occupational health phenomenon. Future research and interventions might aim to identify the health outcomes of migrant farm workers following medical repatriation and to enhance data quality and reliability and the validity of how medical repatriations are documented and coded," said Dr. Orkin.

Photo by Southern Ontario Farm Country via Flickr.