Migrant workers killed in crash were 'breadwinners'

The families of the 10 migrant workers killed Monday in a two-vehicle crash in southwestern Ontario are experiencing shock and despair over their deaths, but also must deal with the loss of their families' main income-earners.

Seasonal workers, often 'invisible' to Canadians, put in long hours for families back home

Georgina Graham remembers talking to her husband for the last time on the phone early in the morning of Aug. 17, 2011, from her home in Manchester Parish, Jamaica.

Omar Graham, 33, was spending his second season in Canada as a migrant worker at a tobacco farm near Paris, Ont., far away from his wife, his grandmother and his three sons, including three-week-old infant Onjordie.

He promised to call his wife later that day after work but never did. Georgina rang his cellphone several times, but no one answered. She said she first heard about Omar being in an accident from people in her district.

A cousin who lived in Canada drove to the farm to confirm that Omar Graham died in a crash.

"I lost a husband and my husband was the breadwinner of our home," Georgina Graham told CBC News on Tuesday. "He never met his baby son."

Graham died after the pickup truck he was driving flipped off the road near Paris, Ont. The pickup was hauling a trailer packed with tobacco, and Graham was thrown from the vehicle when it rolled. But Georgina said she knows little about the details of her husband's accident.

"He crashed and died; that is all I know," his wife said. "I don't think I should be in Jamaica sitting down here struggling to find out what really happened."

The families of the 10 migrant workers killed Monday in a two-vehicle crash that also claimed the life of truck driver in southwestern Ontario are likely now experiencing the same shock and despair as Georgina Graham felt  — and like her, also must deal with their families' main income-earners being taken from them. 

Stan Raper, national co-ordinator for the Agriculture Workers Alliance, told CBC News on Tuesday that most of the migrant workers killed in the crash were men with families who sent financial support to their home countries.

Thousands of migrant workers come to Canada from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America each year to perform seasonal labour, mainly in Ontario and British Columbia's agriculture sector.

Most have come under the federal government's Season Agriculture Worker Program, and rarely have much contact with the communities where they spend as much as seven or eight months as labourers, often to earn money to send back home, where fewer job opportunities exist.

'Most of these workers are invisible'

While many of the local businesses in the hamlet of Hampstead knew about Monday's accident and Brian's Poultry Services, the company that employed the workers, few seemed to know or remember seeing the workers who were killed.

An employee at the America Latina variety store in nearby Kitchener told CBC News that the victims, who were from Peru, would come in to shop regularly on weekend and would buy Peruvian condiments.

"Most of these workers are invisible to most consumers that they help bring products to their tables," said Don Wells, professor of labour studies at Hamilton's McMaster University, who is researching migrant workers in southern Ontario's agriculture sector.

Migrant worker deaths on Canadian roads

Monday's crash is not the first time that farm or migrant workers have been hurt or killed while travelling together on Canadian roads.

In March 2007, a van carrying farm workers overturned on a stretch of highway in Abbotsford, B.C. Of the 17 people on board, three died, and the others suffered injuries.

In September 2005, the Guelph Mercury reported a crash near Delhi, Ont., that left two Jamaican migrant workers dead. The Justicia For Migrant Workers organization would later report that they were among five migrant workers who were seriously hurt or killed while cycling on Ontario roads that season.

Wells, whose team has conducted interviews with about 70 migrant workers so far, told CBC News that many feel isolated and anxious about their finances, and are so terrified of losing their jobs or not being asked back the next season that they sometimes don't report work-related injuries.

"They're so dependant on the employer, they don't have much leverage," he said.

Georgina Graham said it wasn't until December 2011 — four months after her husband's crash — that she started receiving survivor benefits from Ontario's Workers Safety and Insurance Board, although she was compensated shortly after her husband's death for burial costs.

She also said she never received a phone call from Omar's boss to offer condolences for the loss.

"And I heard my husband was the best worker there," she said.

Maryth Yachnin, a lawyer with Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, which represented Georgina Graham, told CBC News that Graham only started getting the benefits after one of the group's legal workers contacted the WSIB.

The WSIB, which has outreach programs to migrant workers and provides services in more than 60 languages, told CBC News it was looking into Graham's case and would respond to a request for more details about her four-month wait.

But the board said that migrant workers and their families are "entitled to the same benefits as any worker in an Ontario workplace covered by the WSIB." 

"A worker's immigration status has no bearing on whether they are eligible for WSIB benefits," the board said in a statement.

Assistance for families, survivors

The WSIB also added it has assembled a special team to work on the tragic Hampstead collision, assisting the injured workers and the surviving families.

"We will reach out to the surviving families, or work with their representatives as appropriate, to provide them with the help and support they need," the WSIB said. "The team will also work closely with those workers who were injured and are now in the hospital."

The WSIB said it will provide them with benefits, which could include funeral and burial expenses, financial support for surviving spouses, educational support for dependent children, and support for healthcare and recovery for injured workers.

While the workers coming into Canada under the Season Agriculture Worker Program are insured and can receive employment insurance, WSIB benefits and pay into the Canada Pension Plan, Raper, a farmworkers' advocate, told CBC News the hefty paperwork for injured workers or their families can prove a heavy burden.   

"You can imagine being a foreign worker from Peru having to stickhandle through all of that," Raper said. "After surviving an injury, you're enduring another nightmare."

But Ken Forth, an Ontario farmer who is also president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service, which assists farmers in finding foreign workers, defended the workers' insurance system in place as "pretty darn straightforward" and insisted the workers are aware of their benefits.

Forth also hit out at "myths" emerging in the wake of Monday's accident that migrant workers killed or injured on the job in Canada don't receive the same insurance benefits as Canadians.

"The worker, in any case, no matter what industry he is in, he gets looked after by the workman's compensation board," Forth told CBC News in an interview. "Compensation is not delayed because some guy didn't fill out paperwork."

McMaster University's Wells said he hopes that Monday's tragedy gives Canadians a chance to get a broader understanding of migrant labour, as "something that involves people with families, with responsibilities in their homelands."

"We eat apples and we eat vegetables and we smell flowers, but we don't have a sense of the processes that went into growing them and harvesting them," he said. "And those are the human beings behind it."


Andrew Davidson

Senior Producer

Andrew Davidson is a senior producer with CBC News in Toronto.