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Manitoba’s seasonal farm workers get more health care

MANITOBA (Canadian OH&S News)


MANITOBA (Canadian OH&S News)

Mexican and Caribbean workers who come to Canada to find employment in the agriculture sector may be eyeing Manitoba as the next best place to ply their trade.

The province announced on May 15 that it would be extending healthcare coverage to workers participating in the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, affording them the same treatment from Manitoba Health as every other worker and citizen in the province.

“Our government recognizes the hard and physically demanding work done by seasonal agricultural workers and we have heard the challenges they have faced with accessing healthcare,” said Christine Melnick, minister of immigration and multiculturalism, in a news release. “Manitoba’s economy relies on seasonal agricultural workers and we compete with other provinces to attract them here, which is why we’re changing our health coverage, to be in line with that already offered in Saskatchewan.”

The coverage for the 300 to 400 seasonal agricultural workers comes into effect this summer and means that the workers will no longer need to pay out-of-pocket to a private insurer. Previously, only migrant workers on work permits longer than a year would be eligible for healthcare coverage, which excluded seasonal workers.

“There’s no doubt that seasonal agricultural workers work very hard within the elements, and there is no doubt that they contribute to the Manitoba economy and the agricultural sector,” Melnick said when announcing the coverage in the legislature.

The changes bring the province in line with neighbouring Saskatchewan, which also waives the wait times for health coverage.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which advocates for migrant worker rights, commended the Manitoba government for its efforts.

“Seasonal agricultural workers work hard to grow the food that Manitoba families enjoy and as taxpaying residents of Manitoba, they deserve the same public health care that other taxpayers already receive,” said Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832.

For several years, the union has been pushing provinces across the country to extend healthcare coverage to migrant farm workers.

“We also applaud the Manitoba government for recognizing the essential role that migrant workers play in the province’s economy, and for acknowledging the difficult and dangerous conditions that migrant farm workers endure in producing our food, thereby, making full access to public healthcare all the more essential,” added union president Wayne Hanley in a news release.

Canada’s treatment of TFWs gets graded

The decision came just a day before the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) issued a series of report cards rating the provinces and federal government on their treatment of migrant workers in the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) Program.

The report cards graded the 10 provinces in seven categories:

— legislative protection of workers

— enforcement of employment standards and related legislation

— access to permanent residence

— welcoming migrant workers (settlement and support services)

— access to information for migrant workers

— awareness raising of responsibilities among employers

— access to healthcare services

“We hope these report cards will be a useful tool for decision makers to identify areas for improvement and to raise awareness among the public and those concerned about migrant workers,” said Loly Rico, president of the council, in a news release.

The report noted that migrant workers are at risk of exploitation and abuse due to their precarious status, work permits that were tied to a single employer, as well as isolation and a lack of access to support services and information on their rights.

The “massive expansion” of the TFW program — the country now hosts more than 300,000 temporary foreign workers — happened without any discussion from the public and is in need of review, the CCR said, adding that it believes Canada should be bringing workers in on a permanent basis. If not, there needs to be proactive enforcement of laws protecting against abuse by employers and recruiters, work permits should not be tied to a single employer, and they should be provided access to avenues of permanent residence, information and services.

Manitoba was already the highest-ranked province on the report card, earning an A for awareness raising of responsibilities among employers and three A-minuses, two Bs (one of them for healthcare access) and a C, for its settlement and support services. The report card noted that the province’s Worker Recruitment and Protection Act set a precedent on how to improve migrant worker protection as well as information sharing with the federal government.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) called the report “damning” and in a news release from May 16, said the gaps exposed in provincial legislation, enforcement and information were putting the province’s almost 120,000 TFWs — the most of any province — at risk.

The province received a D for its access to permanent residence and a C-minus for its settlement and support services. It also received a C-plus, three Cs, and a B, for access to healthcare services.

“Ontario has more migrant workers than any other province in Canada and yet we continue to treat them as an expendable work force,” said OFL President Sid Ryan in a news release. “In 2009, four migrant construction workers plunged to their deaths from the thirteenth floor of a West Toronto high rise and, in 2012, ten migrant farm workers were killed in a horrific accident near Hampstead, Ont. These tragedies are a chilling wake-up call about the risks that vulnerable workers face when they lack legal protection, proper training and knowledge of their rights.”

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