Who: Migrant Worker, allies and community groups
What: Human Rights Tribunal into death of migrant worker Ned
When: April 17th, 18th, 24th, 25th 26th and June 28th 2013
Where: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal 655 Bay (between Dundas and College) 14th Floor
Human Rights Tribunal Hearing on April 17th, 18th, 24th, 25th 26th and June 28th, 2013 (655 Bay street 14th floor from 9 30 am to 4 30 pm)
The Peart case concerns the refusal of the Office of the Chief Coroner to grant an inquest into the death of a Jamaican farm worker, Ned Peart, brought to Ontario through the Commonwealth Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (CSAWP) at an Ontario tobacco farm in 2002. The worker’s family sought to have a coroner’s inquest held into the death of Mr. Peart because of concerns regarding the safety of Mr. Peart’s working conditions. The applicant, the brother of the dead worker, brought a complaint to the Human Rights Commission in the summer of 2005 asserting that s. 10(5) of the Coroners Act, which provides that a mandatory inquest will be held for certain types of workers while excluding others, violates the Code because such provisions have an adverse impact on the applicant and migrant workers in Ontario.
No death of any migrant worker has ever been the subject of a coroner’s inquest.
The application, which seeks an inquest into Mr. Peart’s death and broader systemic reforms of the manner in which the Office of the Chief Coroner investigates the deaths of migrant agricultural workers, seeks to ensure a safer worker environment for all migrant agricultural workers in this province. More broadly this application permits the HRTO to consider the status of migrant agricultural workers within the context of the requirements of the Code, which potentially could positively impact the status of workers in the CSAWP and other temporary migrant worker programs because of the intersection between the Code and the harassment, discrimination and exclusion inflicted on such workers.
The Peart family’s central argument is that because of the unique vulnerability faced by migrant workers brought to Canada under the CSAWP, migrant workers like Ned Peart are adversely affected by the exclusionary structure of the Coroner’s Act.
CSAWP migrant workers are:
• Caught in a cycle of permanent recruitment, whereby migrant workers may never obtain citizenship rights, and never obtain seniority, recall rights, or job security; instead migrant workers are generally selected by their employer, and while most workers return year after year, and while most work the majority of the year in Canada (migrant workers are permitted to work up to 8 months in Canada, though CSAWP prohibits migrant workers from staying in Canada for a full 12 months of any given year), their status is always precarious;
• Liable to be dismissed and repatriated back to their home country for any reason, without recourse, which can include where workers are injured or where workers raise concerns about safety;
• Restricted by their work visas to working for only one employer, with little realistic option of switching employers;
• Especially dependent on their employer because migrant workers must live in employer provided housing, which means living on the employer’s property and subject to their control, and which means the loss of employment (which can occur at the employer’s whim for any reason) also means homelessness
• Subject to long hours and difficult work conditions, which are exacerbated by a documented absence of protective equipment and appropriate training at many farm, even though the Occupational Health and Safety Act applies to farm work;
• Socially isolated with little ability, given the nature of their work and their economic conditions, to assert the rights they have on paper, or to access the health care, employment insurance, or workers compensation benefits they pay for out of their wages;
These vulnerabilities, and others, are linked to the underlying structure of the CSAWP program and migrant workers’ status as racialized foreign born migrants. The result is that migrant workers perform difficult dangerous work without complaint, even when they know the work is hazardous because they are so vulnerable to their employer, and this makes migrant workers vulnerable to and has led to many workplace deaths—Mr. Peart’s death is merely one example of dozens of deaths. In certain other hazardous occupations (like mining or construction) an inquest into such deaths would be automatic, and inquests lead to systemic changes that reduce the risk of death. Given migrant workers’ unique vulnerability in their workplace and the relationship between this vulnerability and their race, place of origin and status, the structure of the Coroner’s Act imposes a disproportionately negative impact on migrant workers not simply because of what they do, but because of who they are, and this adverse impact violates the requirements of the Human Rights Code.
This case is important because when our government provides services it should do so in a non-discriminatory way—for every person in Ontario, regardless of their citizenship, skin colour, or where they come from. This case is also important because it is about creating a more ethical agricultural system. In a time where people are becoming more and more concerned about food sources, local food, and sustainability, it is important to keep in mind the just food production has to include just working conditions for the people who are the closest to the Ontario-grown food that comes to our tables.
The provincial government should take steps to address the vulnerabilities faced by migrant workers on Ontario farms to ensure that all workers in Ontario work in safe workplaces, and the province and the federal government should work together to ensure that programs like CSAWP provide safe opportunities for workers to fill genuine labour shortages rather than an opportunity for employers to exploit a disposable and vulnerable workforce of Latin American and Caribbean workers at low wages in unsafe and unhealthy work environments.