Activists call for more rights for migrant workers amid workplace fatalities
It’s at the dawn of Batangas, a city more than a hundred kilometers north of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, when Eric Gutierrez recalls the memories of his best friend from college Efren Reyes.
Reyes was smart and modest, and they played pool, ate fast food, and hung out in the early 2000s. Gutierrez jokingly says without Reyes he probably would have failed all of his classes.
The last time they spoke three years ago, Reyes had just arrived in Canada and told him about his new job as a chicken hunter and his hopes to make the country a permanent home for his family.
But on May 26, while working on a poultry farm in Wetaskiwin, Alta., Reyes was struck by a Bobcat machine and died on the spot.
“There are a lot of bad people in the world,” Gutierrez says in Filipino. “Why does it have to be him?” “
Reyes was not the first migrant worker to suffer this fate.
According to Syed Hussan, executive director of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, there has been no national assessment of the number of migrant workers who have died on the job in Canada. However, in the shadow of the pandemic, these deaths and the rights of migrants have made their way into public debate.
The Migrant Workers Alliance says four migrant workers have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began in Canada last year.
Hussan said that in 2021 alone, at least 10 migrant workers died from various causes on farms. One of them, Mexican migrant Fausto Ramirez Plazas, died of COVID-19.
Ramirez Plazas arrived in Canada shortly after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for international arrivals. Five workers, including Ramirez Plazas, have died in quarantine, but no assessment of the causes of death of the other four migrants has been made, Hussan said.
He said that, based on families asking for help from the organization and the cases she hears about, the number of migrant worker deaths in the workplace is severely underestimated. Employers are more likely to violate the rights of these workers because of their temporary status and not reporting accidents, he said.
In some cases, he said, migrant workers were sent back to their countries of origin and ended up dying outside of Canada. In other cases, when migrant workers develop a disease, such as cancer from years of exposure to pesticides, they are sent back to their countries and not asked to return, he said.
“It is very difficult to count all the people who have died as a direct result of their work in Canada,” Hussan said, but he thinks the numbers are “quite astonishing”.
When a migrant worker is injured, they are usually expected to make a claim with their employer to their provincial workers compensation board. However, Hussan said there was little or no data on injured migrant workers or the number of deaths.
The federal government, on the other hand, only regulates a number of industries such as flight attendants, interprovincial truckers and federal employees.
Chris Ramsaroop is an organizer for the Justice for Migrant Workers advocacy group. He said that in some cases when a worker dies on the job, workers’ compensation provides support to the family.
Depending on the number of years the person has worked in Canada, their family may also receive survivor benefits from the Canadian pension plan.
“It is also the provincial labor ministry’s responsibility to prosecute and hold employers accountable,” Ramsaroop added.
In Reyes’ case, his family will receive benefits from his Employment Insurance and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration of which he is an active member.
All Filipino temporary foreign workers must register with OWWA before working outside the Philippines to ensure coverage in the event of death. He also coordinates the repatriation of remains.
Philippine Consulate General in Calgary, Zaldy Patron, said his office, along with OWWA, is in contact with Reyes ‘workplace, Elite Poultry Services, regarding supporting Reyes’ family and finding help. ‘a funeral home to deposit his body before his repatriation to the Philippines.
In a statement, Elite Poultry Services said it is still investigating the accident and is cooperating fully with authorities.
“We are saddened by the loss of a member of our team”, we can read. “Our sympathies and condolences go out to the family and those involved in the incident.”
Hussan says there must be more pressure to improve the lives of migrant workers in Canada.
“We have a federal government that is well aware of the nature of the crisis and the solutions,” Hussan said. “Most people will tell you that not having a permanent residence is the reason people don’t have all the rights.”
“The question we need to ask ourselves is,” Hussan added, “what is politically preventing policymakers from doing the right thing?”
When asked who was responsible for the deaths of migrant workers in Canada, he replied, “No one takes responsibility. This is the problem.”
“This is why our people keep dying, and all you get are platitudes.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada as well as Employment and Social Development Canada did not respond in time for publication to requests for comment on the role of the federal government when a migrant worker is injured or dies on the job.
Gutierrez remembers Reyes telling him how hard his job as a Chicken Catcher was. When he caught chickens to transform them, he held five in his right hand and four in his left.
“He said he felt three times more exhausted in his new job compared to the previous one,” Gutierrez recalls. “But he said it was all worth it for his family.”
He wants Reyes to be remembered as a kind friend who had big dreams not only for himself but for his family.
Especially his family.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 13, 2021.
Arvin Joaquin, The Canadian Press