Failing Foreign Workers: Work Visas and Medical Deportation in Canada

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has come under fire recently for letting a foreign worker die. In late 2014, Sheldon McKenzie, a thirty nine year old man from Jamaica, was working on a tomato farm in Ontario when he hit his head. The injury was so severe he had to be rushed to a hospital where doctors had to remove part of his brain due to swelling and internal bleeding.

Though McKenzie was in a coma, CIC tried to deport him. His cousin in Winnipeg hired lawyers to try and stay the deportation. McKenzie died before a decision could be rendered on his case.

This case has been a cause of outrage among Canadians unfamiliar to the plight of temporary foreign workers. To those who know CIC’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, deportation for health reasons – also known as “medical repatriation” – is horrifically common.

When Sheldon McKenzie hit his head and went into a coma, he violated the terms of his work permit which allowed him to remain in Canada so long as he could do the job for which he was granted a visa. As he was unconscious, he couldn’t work, and his inability to work made him useless to the Canadian government which tried to send him home.

According to a 2014 study by the Canadian Medical Association which looked at medical repatriation among temporary foreign workers from 2001 to 2011, employees who are hurt on the job are normally deported without getting the care they need. The medical reasons for deportation can be anything from musculoskeletal and respiratory problems to losing a hand or foot to poisoning to pregnancy.

Is all of this legal? Isn’t there a law to protect these workers?

No, there isn’t. There are generic laws meant to protect people in Canada, but there are no specific rules for temporary foreign workers.

The generic law regarding immigration is the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). It sets out Canada’s immigration objectives which include supporting the Canadian economy, facilitating the entry of temporary workers for the purposes of trade and commerce while at the same time protecting public health, safety, and security.

According to article 3(3)b), the IRPA has to be applied in a way that promotes transparency “by enhancing public awareness of immigration and refugee programs,” something the federal government clearly isn’t doing. The rules regarding programs like the Temporary Foreign Workers are hidden within a lot of propaganda on CIC’s website.

The Act also has to be applied in a way consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which states that everyone has a right to life, liberty and security of the person and not to be denied these rights except in accordance with principles of fundamental justice. The Charter also recognizes that everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or physical or mental disability.

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Image: CBC

If you want specific rules regarding temporary foreign workers, you have to look at leaflets and fact sheets issued by the CIC. According to these documents, the employers of temporary foreign workers have to pay their employees, which includes overtime. They have to make sure the workplace is safe and they are not allowed to take away a worker’s passport or work permit. Employers have to give their workers breaks and days off and cannot force them to perform tasks for which they were not hired or trained. Employers also can’t force workers to do dangerous work.

What is particularly troubling about these leaflets and fact sheets is the advice CIC gives if a worker is hurt on the job, which is to tell their supervisor and then see a doctor. In a world where foreign workers are among its most vulnerable people, telling a supervisor you’re too hurt to work could mean the difference between staying in Canada and being forcibly removed. Since these rules are not entrenched in Canadian law, immigration officials and employers have far too much freedom to hurt workers.

Common sense and decency dictate that if a worker is hurt in Canada working for a Canadian business for the sake of the Canadian economy, that worker deserves Canadian health care. But without clear concise laws and penalties for abusive employers there is no way to guarantee that a temporary foreign worker will get the help they need if they get hurt helping us.

When confronted about the McKenzie case, federal minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour MaryAnn Mihychuk promised to make the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program – a subcategory of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program – part of a government review by the Standing Committee on Human Resources.

Here’s hoping that the Committee comes up with some practical solutions like a distinct law setting out the obligations of employers to temporary foreign workers and penalties for hurting them. Let’s see the government make a stronger effort to entrench the rights of EVERYONE in Canada and make sure that they know what they are.

Failure to help our workers makes us part of the indictment in Woody Guthrie’s song Deportee. In the final verse he sings:

“Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except deportees?”

* Featured Image J. Stephen Conn via Flickr Creative Commons

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