There are two worlds in Ontario. On Christmas Eve of 2009 I was getting ready to sit down to a traditional dinner with my family while five migrant construction workers fell from a swing stage platform that snapped in two. The platform hovered 13 floors above Kipling Ave on an apartment that had been undergoing construction for three months. Four of the workers, Alexander Bondorev, Aleksey Blumberg, Fayzalla Fazilov and Vladamir Koroshi, died from the fall while a fifth worker Dilahod Mamurov remains in the hospital.
“The deaths represent a structural issue. Conditions need to be exposed and access has to be allowed for everyone,” Chris Ramsaroop from the Justice For Migrant Workers organization said.
Ramsaroop is concerned that migrant workers are not properly protected under the Occupational Health and Safety Act of Ontario. He is also worried that when many migrant workers are injured they are often deported back to their home countries. He believes that in some cases when migrant workers try to put in a claim with the Workman’s Compensation Board deportation occurs before the benefits can be approved.
Ramsaroop along with other labour and migrant activists are calling for increased labour standards enforcement from the Ministry of Labour to prevent the 488 worker deaths that occurred in 2008 and the 317 031 work related injuries and diseases that occurred in the same year. In a recent Toronto Star article Patrick Dillon of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council stated that the Ontario Health and Safety Act along with employment and workplace standards legislation needs to be revised. Meanwhile NDP representative Cheri Di Novo (Parkdale High Park) said that only 1% of Ontario workplaces are visited by an inspector and that often these inspectors do not have construction backgrounds.
Other concerns for activists include the lack of coordination between the Ministry of Immigration and the Ministry of Labour particularly on migrant worker deaths. Ramsaroop wants to see increased forms of protection for migrant workers who are often hired by independent contractors who are used as they do not often require benefits or workplace insurance coverage.
“We want protection not prosecution, “Ramsaroop said as he stressed that new measures should not punish migrant workers some of which may be working without immigration status. He highlights the fact that migrant workers have been given status in the past such as Dutch farmers after WWII and wonders why the same rights are not given to current migrant workers. He believes that many current migrant workers may be denied status based on race.
The Attorney General is being pressured to initiate a criminal investigation into the accident while the Ministry of Labour is conducting an open investigation to see if there were any contraventions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. A concern of activist groups is that a stop work order was issued against the Metron Construction company before the accident but it was then lifted one week before the tradgedy. Reports have also shown that there weren’t any safety harnesses used to secure the workers to the platform.
“We take injury and death seriously,” said a representative from the Ministry of Labour. The representative also stressed that the Occupational Health and Safety Act applies to all workers in Canada, migrant or other. Following the Christmas Eve accident the Ministry has instituted a 90 day blitz to inspect sites and states that there are a total of 430 inspectors hired to ensure the safety of Ontario workers. Also last week the Ministry appointed Tony Dean, the former Deputy Minister of Labour to head an independent panel to look at the safety prevention and enforcement systems in the province.
A recent rally at the Kipling accident site drew hundreds of mourners many of whom believe that the workers died because of their immigration status. “This is a matter of immigration status; those who died falling from that building died solely because they were migrant workers, “said Naveen Mehta from the UFCW recorded on the NoOne is Illegal organization website.
One worker remains in the hospital waiting to see if he and his family will receive workman’s compensation or if he will be sent back to his home country. Workman’s compensation is also being sought for the families of the victims. One can only hope that the protections that are afforded for citizens will be given to migrant workers so that basic rights can be enjoyed by everyone in this province.