Thursday, October 22, 2009

Seasonal Agricultural Workers and Workers' Compensation

Last week I attended a symposium on health and safety issues for farm workers with a focus on those entering under the Canada as Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) from Mexico. I have been tracking the workers’ compensation issues raised by the entry of British Columbia into this program about five years ago.

What we know about this group of workers is that they are vulnerable on several levels. Language, culture, limits on the ability to meet with others in the community, long hours, fear of removal, limited knowledge of rights, isolation due to location are but a few of a long list of factors that make this population among the most vulnerable of workers. While these workers have the same rights under workers’ compensation laws and the Occupational Safety and Health Regulation, fully exercising those rights may be hindered by the these factors.

What we heard from the researchers confirmed what we already know: many temporary foreign workers are reluctant to report injuries and violations of the Regulation. Addressing the factors that contribute to this situation isn’t easy but is important.

Letting these workers know about their rights isn’t simply a matter of sending out a booklet or posting a page on the internet (although these actions help to some degree). Unlike other worker populations, workers under SAWP, other programs or even working without legal authority will, by definition, tend to be ‘new’ workers (new to Canada, new to the jobsite, new to tasks they will be performing). As we know from other research, newness itself increases risk (see IWH brief on this topic). Finding ways to better address the needs of this vulnerable group will be a growing challenge as the number of workers in this category increases.

In other forums, I have heard about innovative practices and approaches to serving agricultural workers, particularly temporary foreign workers from Mexico. In Washington state, Spanish radio vignettes have been designed and broadcast with plot lines and dialogue that mirror health, safety and compensation rights. In Ontario, all SAWP are covered by the provincial medical plan (OHIP) without the typical waiting period. In BC, WorkSafeBC and FARSHA have developed materials, delivered training and increased services designed to reach these workers on jobsites throughout the province.

One additional point came out of the symposium that is worth noting. The general category of ‘farm worker’ includes several vulnerable worker types. Canadian citizens and permanent residents may be subject to the same language and cultural barriers as workers under the SAWP groups (Mexico and the Caribbean); Refugee claimants with authority to work will have additional barriers as will other workers who may have no legal status at all in Canada. For the sake of all these vulnerable workers, new approaches may be necessary to educate these workers about the workplace risks they face, how to protect themselves and how to exercise their rights, protections and compensation.

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