TORONTO (Canadian OH&S News)
The survivors of one of the deadliest crashes in Ontario — in which 10 migrant workers and their driver were killed after their van was slammed by a flatbed truck — recently opened up about their plight and their bid to remain in Canada.
“Have any of you ever felt like your life is slipping away from your hands? I have felt this,” Javier Alba Medina asked on Oct. 2 at the launch of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada’s (UFCW) Right to Stay campaign, at Ryerson University, in Toronto.
On Feb. 6, the migrant workers were on their way home from a shift at a poultry farm near Hampstead, Ont., when an oncoming flatbed truck crashed into their van, flinging the vehicle into the side of a nearby farmhouse. Only Medina and Juan Jose Ariza Mejia, two temporary workers from Peru, survived the collision.
“[Our coworkers] all tried to return home sleeping in the van, but Javier and I, it was our first day on the job, and we were curious to see the landscapes and what was before us here in Canada. That’s how it happened,” Mejia recalled in Spanish, choking back tears.
“I looked to my right and I see that a truck is coming, speeding straight towards us. At that point, my soul leaves my body. I locked eyes with the Canadian who was driving the truck. He knew that if he came straight at us there would be no survivors in the van…this is the vision and the memory that I keep with me, and I will keep for the rest of my life,” he said.
As part of the Right to Stay campaign, Medina and Mejia would be able to remain in the country, and gain full citizenship rights, such as health care and protection under labour laws.
According to Naveen Mehta, the director of human rights, equity and diversity at UFCW, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is “at best, modern day servitude, and at worse, modern day slavery.”
Though the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is covering Medina and Mejia’s healthcare costs and 85 per cent of their income while they are recovering, advocacy groups argue that this is not near enough, as many injured temporary foreign workers face deportation and repatriation — as well as a stoppage to any compensation from the Canadian government.
Advocates say TFW changes do not help current workers
Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced changes to the temporary foreign worker program, including less red tape for highly-skilled workers, aimed at effectively filling the impending labour shortages.
But the problem, according to labour rights advocates, is that those changes do not address temporary foreign workers who are already in Canada, and who face high risks for work-related injuries.
“People are tied to the employer, there’s no prospect for status, for living here on a permanent residency basis, and if people do stand up for their rights, they’re sent home,” said Chris Ramsaroop, the national organizer for Justicia for Migrant Workers.
Ramsaroop added that it is not uncommon for temporary workers to be sent home without benefits despite injuries that may prevent them from working in their native countries.
Mejia and Medina both agreed that they are still alive today because they made the decision to stay awake. This gave them the opportunity to brace themselves before the impending crash.
“You can’t imagine, when your body turns against you and it becomes a battlefield,” Mejia added. “I’m still firm in my struggle, still firm in my fight. This is the biggest obstacle I’ve ever endured, but I take it with dignity, with strength, because we are people who are fighters.”