August 13th, 2017; New York Times
The migrant workers that farms across Canada and the U.S. rely on are being forced into increasingly precarious circumstances, according to new investigative reports in the New York Times and ProPublica. In Canada, a seasonal worker program to address labor shortages leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and deportation, and in Florida, a workers’ compensation law has allowed insurers to turn immigrant workers in to the state.
At a time when immigrants and farmers are nervously navigating the new administration’s terrain, it’s troubling that even Canada’s seemingly immigrant-friendly government is facing criticism from human rights advocates.
The New York Times’ Dan Levin summarized the situation:
“Canada’s seasonal agriculture worker program was set up to recruit migrants from Mexico and 11 Caribbean nations to work for up to eight months a year to address chronic labor shortages…But critics say the program is poorly supervised, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation by employers, often denied the Canadian labor benefits they are entitled to and at risk of deportation if they complain about employment conditions.
“In May, however, a report by Canada’s auditor general found scant federal oversight of the temporary foreign worker program, with only 13 of 173 planned inspections completed in the 2016 fiscal year. Temporary foreign workers had not been interviewed during any of the completed inspections, according to the report.
An activist described the program on the ground as “apartheid” and another said workers are exposed to toxic conditions and abusive employers with little oversight.
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One case highlighted by the Times involved a temporary farmworker from Jamaica who was sent home after he injured himself on the job:
“A father of four, (Michael) Campbell said he was left permanently disabled, and filed a claim with the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the provincial agency responsible for providing workers’ compensation. In 2011, the board ruled that he was not entitled to further compensation, claiming he could make up the loss of earnings by working as a cashier in Ontario—even though he was ineligible for a Canadian work visa…Mr. Campbell has appealed the ruling and was asked to testify before a board tribunal in Ontario in June…But in May, Canada’s immigration ministry rejected the application for the visa he would need to come to testify, over concerns he would stay in the country illegally, according to an emailed statement from the ministry.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the picture is much bleaker, as NPQ noted earlier this year, with a wave of ICE detentions across the country, a new policy announced this week ending a path to immigration for youth from Central America fleeing violence, and President Donald Trump’s executive orders and other policies that threaten undocumented immigrants and refugees.
As ProPublica uncovered, a program that was originally started to benefit unauthorized workers was twisted into a punishment in Florida:
From nailing shingles on roofs to cleaning hotel rooms, some 8 million immigrants work with false or no papers nationwide, and studies show they’re more likely to get hurt or killed on the job than other workers. So over the years, nearly all 50 states, including Florida, have given these workers the right to receive workers’ comp.
But in 2003, Florida’s lawmakers added a catch, making it a crime to file a workers’ comp claim using false identification. Since then, insurers have avoided paying for injured immigrant workers’ lost wages and medical care by repeatedly turning them in to the state… And in a challenging twist of logic, immigrants can be charged with workers’ comp fraud even if they’ve never been injured or filed a claim because legislators also made it illegal to use a fake ID to get a job. In many cases, the state’s insurance fraud unit has conducted unusual sweeps of worksites, arresting a dozen employees for workers’ comp fraud after merely checking their Social Security numbers.
Most troubling is ProPublica’s assessment that the abuses, “unnoticed even by immigrant advocates,” could be yet another “harbinger of the future” as the President continues his crackdown.—Anna Berry