The Current

Why migrant workers call this man for medical help instead of seeing a doctor

Meet Byron Cruz, the man migrant workers call for medical help when they're worried a trip to the doctor could cost them their livelihoods.
(Wendy D Photography)

Originally published March 2, 2018.

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Byron Cruz's cell phone has been called the 911 for undocumented or seasonal migrant workers in Canada.

Many foreign workers with precarious employment — whether they're undocumented workers or seasonal farm workers with a legal permit — call him instead of going to see a doctor.

Cruz is an outreach worker with migrants rights group Sanctuary Health. He coordinates with a network of social workers and health care workers who will help treat workers and not report them — often in between their regular work hours.

They're often afraid of doing that because their names might be turned over to border officials. They might also risk losing future job opportunities with their employers.

"We've had people who get injured at work, the only thing they used is the Tylenol, the aspirin, that their grandmother put in their backpacks when they came to Canada, because they are afraid of going to the hospital," Cruz told The Current's Piya Chattopadhyay at a Facing Race town hall in Vancouver.

'This [migrant workers] is a system of exploitation': Vancouver outreach worker Byron Cruz

4 years ago
Duration 1:51
'This [migrant workers] is a system of exploitation': Vancouver outreach worker Byron Cruz

"The owner of the farm will know that they are sick or got injured, and ...the next year they will not come back, because the owner will say, 'You get sick too often.'"

Cruz described other dire health-related dilemmas that foreign workers have found themselves in — often from seasonal workers from Mexico, Guatemala or Jamaica labouring in the fields of B.C. farms.

He spoke of pregnant workers who cannot afford care without medical insurance, or undocumented workers too afraid to walk into a hospital out of fear they will call the Canada Border Services Agency after discovering they cannot pay for their services.

"There was a migrant worker playing soccer who had a fracture,' Cruz said of one case. A physician said he needed a cast to heal, but the man refused. 

"He said sorry, I don't want it, because if the owner of the farm realizes I'm using it, he's definitely going to send me back home."

Cruz described more dire situations where a migrant worker was beaten by his employers for as little as dropping a tomato on the ground, and another farm where workers were equipped with GPS devices to monitor how often they left the fields for a bathroom break.

Bryon Cruz says these are the kinds of pictures he gets from migrant workers and undocumented workers who are afraid of going to the hospital. (Submitted by Byron Cruz)

Recently, he says he gets about 10 calls a week from undocumented migrant workers looking for health care assistance. That's down from about 25 a week two years ago.

"This is a system of exploitation," Cruz said, arguing how race factors into who are given these temporary, often precarious work.

"They know that having brown people like us [are] coming with a lack of rights to unionize. We are coming with lots of fears, because we have been oppressed and repressed in our countries, and here we have been oppressed now, and we don't have a voice."


The Current contacted B.C.'s Ministry of Labour about the issue, who said "all workers in this province are entitled to the same protections regardless of their immigration status." But they did acknowledge that temporary workers are vulnerable to abuse and intimidation in the workplace.

The ministry also says it plans to create a provincial temporary foreign worker registry that will help protect vulnerable workers from exploitation and enable them to track the use of the program.

Listen to the full conversation including hearing from our live audience at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

The Vancouver town hall event was produced by The Current's Yamri Taddese, Pacinthe Mattar and Ruby Buiza.


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