A year ago, on February 6, 2012, 10 migrant agriculture workers being transported in a van and the Ontarian driver of a flatbed truck were killed in a horrific collision near Hampstead, Ontario.
As the tragedy’s first anniversary approached, it was in the news again when Ontario’s chief coroner decided against holding a public inquest into the crash, concluding one of the province’s deadliest-ever collisions was solely the result of driver error.
This conclusion has been contested as the tragedy was much more than a horrible road accident. It also exposed the dark underbelly of Canada’s labour market that recruits almost 300,000 temporary foreign or migrant workers each year. Workers unions and rights activists say they often work under inhumane conditions and then sent home when their visas expire.
Wayne Hanley, the national president of UFCW Canada (United Food and Commercial Workers union), believes an inquest would have helped shed light on the challenges facing temporary foreign farm workers in Canada. It could have lead to blueprints for improving safety and preventing deaths and serve as a catalyst for changes to legislation and policies.
“It is a tragedy waiting to happen again,” said Hanley in a press release. Last February, Hanley and the union called for an inquiry into the tragedy including how the total lack of regulations governing the transport of agriculture workers may have contributed to it.
“The coroner acknowledged the call for the inquest but that was it. A year later, nothing has happened. Why? The role of an inquest is to make recommendations to prevent such future tragedies. An inquiry would confirm that right now in Ontario, transporting cattle is more strictly regulated than transporting farm workers,” said the leader of Canada’s largest-private-sector union.
The Justicia for Migrant Workers collective, in an open letter to Premier-designate Kathleen Wynne, has also called for a review of the decision not to undertake an inquest into the accident. “The Chief Coroner’s refusal to further investigate one of the worst workplace accidents in the history of Ontario sends a message that the lives of those who perished — most of whom were migrant workers — matter less than those of other workers. We remind you that there has never been an inquest into the death of a migrant worker in the Province of Ontario, “said the letter.
“Workers are in jeopardy every day. They tell us of being carted around in the back of cube vans, open flatbed pickups, and even on top of food crates loaded behind a tractor. The Ontario government must not wait for another tragedy before it acts. A coroner’s inquest into Hampstead is critical, but in the meantime, the government could move tomorrow under the Health and Safety Act to regulate and enforce safe transportation of farm workers,” said Hanley, the UFCW official quoted earlier. “A year has passed since Hampstead. There is no excuse for further delay.”
Right to Stay campaign
Meanwhile, an international campaign has been launched to let Juan Ariza, one of the survivors of the accident, to stay in Canada and rebuild his shattered life.
A Peruvian native like the nine other workers killed, Ariza had been in Canada for three days when tragedy struck. The 36-year-old man has been recuperating in a nursing home in London, Ontario but faces deportation unless his application is granted by the federal government.
“Juan would like to build a productive life in Canada for himself and his family, and he should have the right to do so,” says Naveen Mehta, the general counsel and director of human rights, equity and diversity for UFCW Canada. Along with a network of community activists, lawyers, advocates, friends, and labour allies, UFCW Canada has joined in a campaign to support Ariza’s application for permanent residency and his Right to Stay in Canada based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
“The Right to Stay (R2S) campaign is about fairness and accountability,” says Mehta. “Juan was recruited by Canada to do hard and dangerous work that many others refuse to do. It is unjust and unconscionable for Canada to now dispose of him like some used up commodity because he was injured.”
But Juan’s application to stay in Canada has so far gone unanswered. To support Juan’s request, the Right to Stay campaign has launched a public campaign, as well as a petition calling on Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to do what is right and fair, and allow Juan’s request for permanent residency (to find out more about the petition, go to www.ufcw.ca/right2stay or www.change.org/right2stay).
“For the Harper government to deport Juan would result in inhumane hardship for Juan and his family, particularly given his medical condition and the lack of supports available to them in Peru,” says the UFCW Canada human rights director. “The supports that he needs are in Canada and with these supports Juan would clearly be able to lead a productive life in Canada.”
YouTube video from the six month anniversary of the Hampstead tragedy.