Ontario Workers' Comp Reforms Fail Migrant Workers

Migrant agricultural workers are employed in one of Canada's most hazardous industries. The precarious nature of their temporary contracts makes these workers further vulnerable to a variety of health issues, including workplace injury and illness.


  • Stephanie Mayell

    Doctoral Candidate, Medical Anthropology, University of Toronto

  • Janet McLaughlin

    Associate Professor of Health Studies, Research Associate, International Migration Research Centre, Wilfrid Laurier University

  • Jenna L Hennebry

    Professor, International Migration Research Centre, Wilfrid Laurier University, Wilfrid Laurier University

When a migrant worker is injured on the job in Ontario, they encounter numerous barriers to accessing health care and workers' compensation, and many are prematurely deported.

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), which is responsible for providing workers' compensation to injured Ontario workers, has drawn criticism from migrant workers and their allies for the unjust nature of its practice of "deeming" migrant workers who are injured in Ontario to be capable of returning to work even when it's not clear they're able to do so.

The WSIB recently issued a public apology for its unfair treatment of injured migrant agricultural workers and announced the new Foreign Agricultural Worker Strategy.

Obstacles to filing claims

In our decades of conducting community-based health research, we have found that injured migrant workers generally report a lack of awareness of and confusion about workers' compensation - and face many barriers to filing claims.

Those who do file claims report several challenges, including poor treatment from case managers and insufficient support to access health care and recover from their injuries.

Injured migrant workers who return to their home countries do not benefit from re-employment, retraining or reintegration into any labour market. Most seriously injured migrant workers remain unemployed, and without compensation benefits, relegated to a life of poverty and poor health.

Take for example Leroy Thomas, who left his family in Jamaica every season for 16 years to work as a migrant worker in Ontario. He helped grow the food Canadians eat and contributed to the Canadian economy and social fabric while he supported his family working as a barber during the winter months in Jamaica.

In 2017, Thomas suffered a debilitating back injury, acquired on the job in Canada, that prevented him from returning to either workplace, leaving him without a livelihood.

The WSIB "deemed" Thomas physically capable of work as a parking lot attendant in Ontario and limited his loss of earning benefits to just 12 weeks, after which he was told he would not be provided with any further assistance.

There was just one catch - Thomas lives in Jamaica and was unable to return to Ontario to take this job. With no means of income, Thomas and his family were thrust into poverty, and now they often don't have enough money to buy food to eat.

Fighting back

With the help of legal advocates at the Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, Thomas and three other injured migrant workers fought back against this unjust policy.

In September 2023, they won.

The provincial Appeals Tribunal ordered the WSIB to compensate them for their lost wages according to the realities of the job market in Jamaica and their inability to return to Ontario. In their landmark decision, the tribunal recognized "the undisputed existence of anti-Black racism in Ontario" and the uniquely precarious status of migrant workers.

WSIB's new strategy includes changes to how the board reviews suitable work available for injured migrant workers based on the labour market realities in their home countries. The board also committed to paying out millions of dollars to migrant workers who have been injured since 2007 while working under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

Although a notable step in the right direction, many migrant workers are excluded from this plan, including those injured before 2007 and workers employed under the other streams of Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

To seriously address the injustices facing injured migrant workers, we recommend the WSIB expand their recent announcement to include all workers who have been injured in Ontario since the WSIB's practice of deeming began in the 1990s.

The WSIB should also provide all injured migrant workers with greater return-to-work supports - on par with resident workers - that are accessible and provided in workers' preferred languages, including meaningful opportunities to retrain and reintegrate into the Canadian labour market.

Making it right

Following the WSIB's apology in May, its president Jeffery Lang said:

"These are some of the most vulnerable people, they came to work in Ontario, they got hurt, they got sent back to their home countries, and they got dinged for not being from Ontario… And quite frankly, that's just wrong, so we're going to make it right."

We urge the WSIB to be true to their word. If these changes purport to "make it right" for migrant agricultural workers, why would the WSIB exclude the thousands employed through the agriculture stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program or those injured prior to 2007?

To truly "make it right," the new policy must apply to all injured workers, past, present and future - rather than perpetuate systemic discrimination against thousands of migrant agricultural workers in Ontario. To do so requires more than a quick fix and a mea culpa, it requires system-level change - led by the WSIB.

The Conversation

Stephanie Mayell has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Janet McLaughlin has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the (former) WSIB Research Advisory Council. She is co-coordinator of the Migrant Worker Health Project (www.migrantworker.ca).

Jenna L Hennebry has received funding from: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; Workplace Safety Insurance Board's Research Council; Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario; Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; UN Women; UNODC; IOM; Government of Germany. She is the Founder/Director of Gender+Migration Hub (www.gendermigrationhub.org) and Co-founder of the Migrant Worker Health Project (www.migrantworker.ca).

/Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).