BC's migrant workers suffer ill health, poor conditions: Studies

Gruelling conditions, poor health are seldom reported

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many migrant farm workers who come to B.C. -- and elsewhere in Canada -- every year aren't given proper safety training, live in hot and cramped quarters, have no access to clean water and see their health suffer as a result, say two new studies.

The authors say in their papers, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, that workers are suffering from persistent back pain, eye and skin disorders and mental health problems due to a combination of factors.

Researchers found that many workers from Mexico, Jamaica, the Philippines and other countries develop ailments linked to the gruelling work they do on Canadian farms, largely in B.C. and Ontario.

Jenna Hennebry, who co-wrote one of the papers, says that overcrowded housing, the rigours of 12-hour days, lack of knowledge of their right to health care and the stress of being away from families for much of the year take a heavy toll on workers.

Still, many of those who develop health problems don't seek care because they either don't know they are entitled to it, work too much to get to a clinic or fear losing their job.

"One of the most disturbing things we found were the barriers to accessing health care and compensation,'' says Hennebry, a social scientist with the International Migration Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

"Forty-five per cent of those surveyed indicated they were fearful of reporting concerns to employers.''

Hennebry surveyed about 600 migrant workers in Ontario from 2007 to 2009, finding a number of them experienced some type of health ailment linked to their farm work in Canada.

She says most complained of back pains, symptoms linked to gastro-intestinal disorders, heat exhaustion, pesticide exposure or food- or water-borne disease.

More than 85 per cent said they did repetitive movements all day, likely causing musculoskeletal injuries, while almost 80 per cent said they worked in extreme heat.

The majority of those surveyed said they worked many hours without breaks, had no protection from the rain and no safety training or knowledge of the risks in their work.

A similar study in B.C. produced similar results.

The surveys, some of the first of their kind in Canada, also asked workers about their living conditions on farms that employ tens of thousands of legal migrants every year through federal government programs.

Almost 15 per cent said they didn't have access to clean drinking water, very few had fans or air conditioning in their residences and some said there weren't enough beds for everyone.

The stress of living in cramped, uncomfortable spaces also takes a psychological toll on the mostly male workforce, who spend up to eight months in Canada under government programs.

"They're all living together in really confined settings. They work together all day, they have one or two stoves they have to rotate through when they get home, they have no social interactions,'' Hennebry says.

"Mental health was something we realized was quite a big issue among this group.''

Researchers contend that farm and domestic workers often don't seek help for their health concerns because they fear losing wages or being sent home by their employer and then are prevented from returning in the future.

Hennebry found the majority had a limited understanding of their rights to health care, while 93 per cent had no idea how to make a workers' compensation claim.

In the end, she found a lot of workers return home without receiving care or any compensation for injuries, and may take illnesses back to their own country.

Not everyone in the industry agrees.

Bette Jean Crews, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says the reports' findings are questionable because the employment of migrant workers is regulated by the federal government.

"I would question the validity of some of those comments,'' she says. "I know the program has a housing standard and a very severe inspection and testing of the water and standards around how many men can be in how much space. I know the living standards are very good for workers who are brought in.''

Crews says she hires six migrant workers every year on her farm near Trenton.

"As far as safety training, workplace safety training is required by the Workers Compensation Act and at our farm, we do it every spring,'' she says.

"Every farmer I know does it every year. These workers are involved in that training as well.''

Mike Pysklywec, a general practitioner in Hamilton who co-wrote the second report in the medical journal, sees migrant workers at a free weekly clinic in nearby Simcoe for labourers from surrounding farms.

He says migrant workers have so little time off that they set up the clinic Friday nights when buses bring labourers in to the community to do laundry, get supplies and go to the doctor.

Most of the ailments he treats are directly linked to the long hours workers spend hunched over picking crops or prolonged exposure to dust and fertilizers, which can cause skin and eye irritation.

But many don't seek treatment because they haven't been told or didn't understand that they're entitled to it. Pysklywec says others didn't have their government-provided health card.

"The employer will often hold their health card, so it stops them from going to the hospital,'' he says.

"It's a huge problem. You know, we take it for granted that our employers are going to support us or that we're going to have work. That's not the case for a lot of people.''

But Crews says she doesn't understand why a farmer would hold a health card, because helping migrant workers maintain their health is important in order that they can work.

"I'd see no advantage to an employer to doing that,'' she says.

"Our workers have access to a liaison worker from the country they're from and they can call them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So if something is happening the worker doesn't like, it would be a matter of hours before the officer is hearing about that and is down to see what is going on.''

Both authors say there is a need for stringent federal regulations on housing, better safety training, free protective gear and assurances that workers know their rights to health care.

Hennebry says it's especially urgent since the numbers of migrant workers coming to Canada appears to be rising, with 193,000 admitted in 2008 on temporary work permits.

"As we have these growing numbers, we're going to have more and more vulnerable workers and more and more tragic and disturbing things happen,'' she says.

Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, a farmer-run program that brings in workers under federal regulation, says he also has deep doubts about the articles.

"It's so regulated people ask me why I'm involved because there are so many regulations aimed at ensuring things go right.''

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