By Haseena Manek
“Nobody cares about you”: Ongoing case of migrant farmworker Ralston Maise shows how system treats migrant workers as disposable.
During Injured Workers Week in Ontario, reports ran detailing the complete failure of the Workers’ Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) to address the needs to injured workers. RankandFile.ca spoke to Ralston Maise about his experience with a workplace injury as a migrant farmworker in Ontario.
Last year, Maise, who was working as a farmworker as part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TWFP)’s Agricultural Worker stream was injured while picking strawberries on an Ontario farm. Following this incident, Maise’s claim with the WSIB board was rejected and he was denied access to healthcare here in Canada and was bought a plane ticket back to Jamaica.
Maise’s case is exemplary of the mistreatment of migrant workers by employers and the disregard for their case by the WSIB.
“Sign the blank paper”
“I was picking strawberries that day,” explains Maise to RankandFile.ca. “I slipped and I hit my knee on the metal carrier [used for collecting strawberries]. When I hit my knee on the carrier I fell to the ground. I was on the ground for a little while I finally got up after about 15 minutes.”
According to Maise, he shared that he had a fall to his supervisor and was told to take his time, continue his work. And so he did. Like many migrant workers, Maise was caught in between wanting to share the severity of the incident but not seem so badly injured that he would be sent home. He realized the next day when he saw the amount of swelling on his knee and had trouble bending it that it was a serious injury.
“I didn’t want to go to the hospital and then be sent home,” he says. “Because I came here to earn money to support my family.”
He tried to continue working, bought a knee brace and used over-the-counter topical ointments. He did finally see a doctor, who following an x-ray, said that Maise had torn a muscle. When he shared this with a WSIB Liaison Officer, though, he felt like his situation was not being accurately noted.
Maise described telling his story to his Liaison Officer: “When I finished, he said to me, ok he’s gonna go to his office and fill out everything, and then he’ll sign it and I’ll get a copy. He was telling me to sign the blank paper, which was the Form 7, nothing was written on it, all the information he got from me he put it on a blank piece of paper.”
“I was very upset because he wanted me to sign the blank paper.” When the WSIB investigated Maise’s case, they interviewed some of his coworkers who had witnessed the accident as well as his supervisor. His supervisor said Maise did not report the injury and his coworkers said they did not see the accident.
“They can’t talk because they’re afraid”
Maise told RankandFile.ca that he asked his coworker why he said he didn’t witness the accident, and feels it was because he feared for his own job. The WSIB interviewed Maise’s coworkers in the presence of the employer.
“They use you against each other,” says Maise. “And that’s the system that needs to be changed. When person sees something they can’t talk because they’re afraid they’ll lose the opportunity of coming back.”
As seasonal employees, workers in the TFWP come to Canada in the summer to work on farms and return to their home country over the winter. They have no guarantee they’ll be called back the following year.
“Migrant workers will be fearful, they’re not going to try and speak out against their employers,” says Chris Ramsaroop, who works with migrant worker solidarity organization Justice 4 Migrant Workers (J4MW). “There’s a fear of disbarment from the program if they stand up fro their rights. The power dynamic that exists between migrant workers and bosses, where basically bosses have total control over the workforce both when they’re working and living in the community.”
Farmworkers in the TFWP live and work on the property of their employer.
“For us,” Chris continues, “Ralston’s situation highlights the systemic issues that black and brown workers from the global south are facing and the disadvantage and the denial of benefits that one enjoys as a permanent resident of Ontario.” Chris estimated that approximately one third to half of migrant workers in contact with J4MW have claims rejected by the WSIB.
“The boss don’t want you to know that doctor”
Maise shared some other concerns about his experience, like that his employer discouraged him from going into the nearby town to see the doctor again (initially saying he couldn’t go, finally saying he could but could not get a ride and should take the bus at the end of the day). That day, Maise ended up borrowing $20 from a coworker to get a taxi and waited hours for the 9pm bus back to the farm compound.
Maise also notes that he was questioned about which doctor he saw and that his employer encouraged people to go to the hospital rather than the smaller clinic at a Superstore where there was a doctor known for treating farmworkers. “The boss don’t want you to know that doctor. They want you to send you to the hospital because they have a lot of connections with the hospital.”
Finally he was told that he if could not work he would be sent home. “He said I have to go home because the boss don’t want someone on the property who isn’t working.”
When Maise said he needed to stay because he had an appointment for an ultrasound, his employer called the hospital and attempted to change the ultrasound appointment for the next day.
When Maise was later told that it would take another six to eight weeks to recover from the injury, his employer bought a plane ticket and tried to send Maise home. He stayed and continued to try and access healthcare but was told that his health care had been cut off, though this was October of 2017 and the card experienced on the 15th of December.
“Every time you go to hospital they give you a different story,” Maise reflects. “They change the information to make the injury seem less than it is. You can’t imagine how many people who don’t stand up for their rights get send home. once you’re injured and you go to the doctor they make the injury look less than it is because they’re all friends. the Liaison Officer is there to represent you but they are not representing you. They do everything to send you home.”
“They tried to do everything to turn down my claim.”
Fighting for Justice
Last Monday, Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, J4MW launched a phone and email campaign encouraging supporters to contact the WSIB on Maise’s behalf.
About two weeks before, on November 23, dozens of supporters, lead by Maise, headed to the WSIB head office to “demand fairness and compensation for [Maise’s] injuries”, reads the call for participation from J4MW. “WSIB refused our request to send a decision maker to address our concerns. Instead, our delegation was met with a public relations representative,” reads an email from J4MW. “They basically tried to brush us off with their highly-paid PR person as a response,” Chris explains. “We tried to tell them we’re not going away and Ralston is not going away.” However, Ramsaroop says the community response to the campaign has been tremendous.
At present, Maise is in the process of appealing the WSIB’s initial decision to reject his claim. This process could take months. During this period Maise is on a visitor visa and not entitled to work.
“Canada is an apartheid state,” Ramsaroop concludes. “On paper it may seem that migrant workers have access to every benefit that a permanent resident of Canada enjoys. This is absolutely false. We have a thorough and full economic and racial apartheid system. With respect to healthcare, with respect to access to justice, with respect to the ability to exert the rights of migrant workers. With Ralston’s case, with every case we have seen is a two-tiered way of how migrant workers are treated by our healthcare system. it’s inaccessible, it’s inhumane, and it’s something we are going to continue to fight. There’s no way in hell that when people are getting sick and injured that they should be discarded.”
“And some of us because we have nobody here, we don’t know our rights because they give us nothing to think about our rights, they don’t tell us,” says Maise. “I didn’t even know about the WSIB board until the Liaison Officer brought the form. The government needs to step in. I don’t see why they can’t help people to get better treatment, feel more secure working, more comfortable in their environment.”