The family of a migrant farm worker who died several months after a severe head injury says the program that brought him to Canada stripped him of his labour rights after he was hurt, then tried to cut off his access to health care.
Sheldon McKenzie, 39, suffered the injury at work, and his family say they were forced to intervene to keep him from being shipped back to Jamaica without getting the medical care he required.
His cousin, Marcia Barrett who lives in Winnipeg, says more needs to be done to protect the rights of migrant labourers who come to work under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program that provides temporary foreign labour to Canadian farms.
Hundreds of those workers have been sent home from Canada in similar circumstances, a practice known as “medical repatriation.”
“It’s worse than slavery — they dispose of them,” Barrett told Go Public.
For 12 years, McKenzie went back and forth from Jamaica, spending months in Canada doing manual labour on farms. The money he made was sent back home to his wife and daughters.
In late 2014, he started working on a tomato farm near Leamington, Ont. It would be his last job.
In January 2015, Barrett got a call saying her cousin had hit his head at work and was in a coma in hospital.
“His face was completely bandaged, he was swollen. We got there, he was on life-support,” Barrett said.
His condition was so bad, doctors had to remove part of his brain due to swelling and internal bleeding.
Barrett says right away there was pressure from McKenzie’s liaison officer to have him return to Jamaica. No longer able to work, he lost his work visa and no longer qualified for health-care coverage.
She hired lawyers to try to get him a humanitarian visa so he could continue getting medical care in Canada. She succeeded in getting a temporary stay, but McKenzie died before a decision was made on a humanitarian visa.
Barrett expected support from the Jamaican liaison officer assigned to McKenzie’s case as part of the seasonal worker program, but she says that didn’t happen.
“What I found out after much talking to people who will never talk on camera, when the migrants are hurt, sometimes they don’t take them to the hospital, they ship them back to Jamaica,” she says.
“Their only goal was to ship him back home. The only way he wasn’t shipped back in three days is because we dug our heels in and said no because the health care in Jamaica is not up to par to take care of the type of injury that he had.”
Go Public asked Carlton Anderson, the chief Jamaican liaison officer for Canada, about the allegation that liaisons are helping to have farm workers sent home quickly after being injured.
In a statement, he said he is unaware of that happening saying “this type of action by an officer would be inconsistent with the officer’s obligation and commitment to the worker.”
Anderson, whose office works with the Canadian government to administer the program, said such actions would not be tolerated.
“The well-being of the worker is the prime reason for our existence or presence in Canada,” he wrote. “However, there is no work without the program and there is no program without the employers.”