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Do migrant workers have access to health care?

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Photo: Heryka Miranda

Do migrant workers have health care? The answer to that question is not easy. As a condition of employment, migrant workers have the right to public health care, however, whether they have access is a more complicated question. Many workers do not know that they have health care, and generally only access emergency services. Most only have the right to the basic benefits available as a part of the provincial health system, not to dental, prescription drug and other such coverage. Migrant workers often work long hours for 6 or 7 days a week. When you add language barriers, lack of transportation, and fear of the employer finding out about their illnesses, many workers report major impediments to accessing health care. There are also important concerns about occupational health and safety, and currently there are campaigns to demand better pesticide rules and improve occupational health and safety across North America.   

I introduce to the reader two groups in the Niagara Region who are working towards addressing the psycho-social needs of migrant farm works while filling the gap as it relates to migrant farm workers accessing health care. If, after reading these stories, you want to volunteer or get involved, I have included links to both initiatives in the text of the article and at the end of the article. 

The Niagara Migrant Worker Interest Group-NMWIG

About 10 years ago a few migrant farm workers in the Niagara Region identified concerns to trusted members of their host rural community. These concerns demonstrated that there was a lack of health services and information about an array of issues impacting migrant farm workers. This included access to health care, and occupational health concerns such as a lack of preventative care protocols for workers to protect themselves from the sun or pesticides, lack of safety equipment and training on how to use certain machinery, and other job-related safety matters.

As a community response to migrant farm workers' concerns, The Niagara Migrant Worker Interest Group (NMWIG) was born and continues to be a coalition of community members and agencies responding to the health and safety needs of migrant farm workers in the Niagara Region. NMWIG was formed to foster collaboration, partnership, and resource sharing to increase access to services for migrant workers in the Niagara Region, and share information among agencies, individuals, employers and migrant workers to increase public awareness and advocate for policy change. Currently, NMWIG partners with the following agencies that include: Agricultural Workers Alliance (Virgil), Bikes for Farm Workers, Brock University, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) - Hamilton Office, Positive Living Niagara, and Quest Community Health Centre.

One way in which migrant workers access basic preventative care is at the annual migrant farm worker information health fair in the Niagara Region. This health fair is held every summer and each year up to 400 migrant farm workers attend. According to current NMWIG chair, Joanne Navarro: 

"It's an important event because many organizations come together to present migrant workers with different information which is useful to them. We also have students from Brock University that come and demonstrate stretches with workers. One worker told me that he learned valuable information on how to protect his back which he uses here and back home in Jamaica."

What the migrant farm workers most like about the festival, however, is the companionship, according to Navarro. In June 2017, NMWIG held a workers' advisory council meeting to ensure that it was addressing the needs the workers wanted to meet. In Navarro's words:

"We are always responding to migrant workers needs and not what we think they need but what they are telling us that they need. For example, we asked them about the festival, do they like it as is? Do they want to see changes? They requested whether someone can be checking their eyes, blood pressure, etc...? Their suggestions were about wanting more health check-ups at the festival and more fun and games. At the festival, the workers visit various information booths and then they wait for the bike raffle or food. In those periods of lull it would be great to have more fun activities. We are trying to provide both."

Needs assessment is an ongoing process and at the festival, NMWIG conducts community needs assessments with migrant farm workers that helps to provide more understanding and at times, tends to counter some beliefs about the lives of migrant workers. Navarro explains:

"I was surprised to read that some workers admit that they don't work enough hours. This is something I haven't heard before. You come to learn more facets about their lives that you weren't aware of before."

Towards the end of my conversation with Navarro I asked her if there were any NMWIG initiatives in reaching out to the employers/farmers of migrant workers? And, whether there are any farmers that are part of the coalition? Navarro responded:

"No there are no farmers that are part of the coalition. One of the roles that we are looking to fill is the role of outreach coordinator. Some individuals who work with NMWIG do have relationships with farmers. As a coalition we are going to stretch our efforts to focus on building relationships with farmers. I have many positive employer stories which is not the norm. What many people don't hear are the stories of farmers that do care. Its important to bring positive employer experiences as they are demonized in the media and keep everything at an arm's length. There are wonderful employers out there and we don't hear enough about them. The best story that I can tell you is about an employer that vacations in Jamaica to visit his employees. So instead of going somewhere else he goes back to Jamaica to visit his guys. That's where he chooses to spend his vacation with the workers, not away from them."

St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Beamsville, Ontario

The fact that St. Alban's is a hub for migrant workers in the Niagara region is well documented. I interviewed Padre Javier Arias about the work he does modelling exceptional culturally sensitive programming for the predominantly Mexican migrant farmworker population that they serve.

Padre Arias, a Colombian-born Anglican priest, arrived at St. Alban's in the summer of 2013. In February 2014 he took the initiative to visit a nearby farm. There he found 30 Mexican workers living at a temporary residence. This spontaneous farm visit and the meaningful relationships that were built between the priest and several workers over time was the impetus to organize weekly Spanish mass services at the Anglican Church. Through the help of these migrant farmworkers, Arias was introduced to several farms that hire migrant farmworkers in the Niagara Region.

Padre Arias came to understand some of the great challenges faced by Mexican migrant workers, in particular the lack of access to medical services and the impact that living in isolation has on the workers emotional and psychological states. Arias says:

"The migrant workers wanted something different besides being inside their temporary residences when they weren't working. They felt isolated in their homes and they were concerned about other workers' emotional states. Once I started offering Spanish mass service, I felt they needed more than just a mass. They needed accompaniment, meaningful relationships and a strong sense that they are an integral part of their community. The ability to speak the same language and attempt to integrate workers in the community has meant so much to the workers."

This year St. Alban's launched a seasonal migrant worker health clinic inside the church that runs from February through August. I have collaborated with Padre Arias on culturally sensitive arts-based programming at St. Alban's, and it's clear to me that the success of St. Alban's programs has something to do with him. So I asked him what philosophical influences ground his efforts. Padre Arias explained:

"In Latin America they trained me in Liberation Theology -- working in the community -- sensitizing others to work for social justice. It's not just about going to church, it's about social justice. It's in our blood Heryka, to fight for community and for people to progress against injustice and oppression. Jesus worked with thieves, prostitutes, the lowest of the low in society. That is the mission, to be with those most in need -- vulnerable and marginalized populations, not the most powerful, however we need them too. We need to love the powerless and take care of them as Jesus did and rise up for those who are voiceless."

Social integration and inclusion are at root of what makes St. Alban's a hub for migrant farmworkers, not religious affiliation or beliefs. Padre Arias insists that:

"We don't care what religious or spiritual affiliation migrant farm workers practice or whether they believe in God, the important thing is that they take advantage of the resources available to them. The emphasis is on social integration and inclusion. Some workers don't come to mass but come to the health clinic or English classes or dinner program, which is all fine. Its not an issue of religious affiliation, its about making sure workers access needed services and resources."

St. Alban's efforts has united a collective of six churches in the local community. Members of these churches have donated food to the migrant worker dinner program, have assisted with transportation needs, and have organized their congregations to donate warm winter clothing for the workers.

The accompaniment process is an important principle that Arias models with members of his congregation. It includes visits to local migrant farmworker residences which not only can be an eye-opening experience for Canadians, it also assists in forming meaningful relationships with the workers. Arias explains:

"When I first came to Mexican and Central American migrant farm worker communities, it was difficult because they tend to be very reserved and not trusting of people from the outside because they fear being used or manipulated or that we are going to tell them lies. When you offer genuine friendship, they give you their whole heart. My relationships evolved into this sense of family. It didn't matter if I was a priest or whether they believe in God or not, they saw me as a close friend and likewise, I would see them as close friends. Migrant workers who come to the church have a special and close relationship with volunteers. They feel part of the community when they engage with volunteers and members of the congregation and create meaningful relationships."

St. Alban's already has its eyes set on their next initiative: to carefully work on developing relationships with farmers that employ migrant farm workers.

Both these initiatives need volunteers and support. To contact St. Alban's Anglican Church and find out more about volunteer jobs, click here and to volunteer with NMWIG, click here.

Photo: Heryka Miranda

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