'We have not learned those lessons': Advocates say little done to protect migrant workers in 10 years since Hampstead crash
Ten years after a crash northeast of Stratford in Hampstead killed ten migrant farm workers, advocates say there there have been no changes to protect migrant workers.
“We look at this as a tragedy that hasn’t led to a catalyst for changes,” says Chris Ramsaroop of Justice for Migrant Workers. “We haven’t seen any legal changes, any type of amendment to our occupational health and safety laws or employment standard laws to protect workers, particularly vulnerable, precarious workers here in Ontario.”
On February 6, 2012 at 4:50 p.m., OPP were called to Perth County Road 107 and Line 47.
A 15-passenger van with 13 migrant farm workers on board drove through a stop sign and into the path of a transport truck.
Ten of the people in the van – including the driver – were killed. They were all migrant farm workers from Peru.
The London man driving the flatbed truck also died. With 11 casualties, it’s still considered one of the deadliest crashes in Ontario’s history.
A DEADLY PATTERN
In the weeks and months after, there were several calls for a coroner’s inquest into the deaths, but Dan Cass – Ontario’s Chief Coroner at the time – said the deaths were determined to be the result of driver error and an inquest wouldn’t likely generate recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
Janet Mclaughlin, co-founder of the Migrant Worker Health Project at Wilfrid Laurier University, says there’s never been an inquest into any migrant worker’s death in Ontario.
“So what’s happening is that each of these deaths are viewed in isolation, as though they’re unconnected or unfortunate accidents,” she says. “This story was viewed as a tragic accident. Someone didn’t stop at a stop sign. But really I think we need to look at the broader circumstances here of the long hours that these migrant workers are often working, and making sure they have consistent access to safe and regulated transportation.”
Mclaughlin says their research has found precarious living and working conditions, including the transportation between living and working sites, contribute to preventable deaths among migrant worker populations.
“We’ve really seen that this year with COVID, with so many workers living in sometimes overcrowded housing, not having adequate ventilation, or ability to distance,” she says.
She says this was a problem pre-pandemic as well, as the poor conditions allows any type of infectious disease to spread.
PUSHING FOR CHANGE
Ramsaroop met with the three survivors and the families of the deceased after the crash.
“The day it happened was definitely one of the most difficult days of our lives,” he recounts.
He says since 2001, approximately 60 migrant workers have died in Ontario. While they lobby for better protection for these workers, he says the federal government has expanded the temporary foreign worker program without revamping policies.
“This is a concern,” says Ramsaroop. “Workers should not be tied to a single employer. They should have the ability to exert rights in the workplace and they should not be facing the choice between possibly death and dangerous working conditions and the ability to work.”
“Even if they feel unsafe working,” adds Mclaughlin, “they often don’t feel they can ask for a change in circumstance.”
Ramsaroop says there’s an asymmetrical power balance. “We’ve got an industry that is very powerful, has a lot of influence, and they’ve crafted laws that benefit the industry at the expense of the workers.”
Both experts feel there isn't political will to enact any changes, even when incidents like the Hampstead crash or COVID-19 deaths draw attention to migrant worker conditions.
“We were all angry. We all were enraged and saddened by the accident. But we have not learned those lessons,” says Ramsaroop.
“The problem is that this attention is temporary and it wanes over time and so these circumstances continue,” says McLaughlin. “And migrant workers continue to face them but the Canadian public doesn’t continue to be aware of them.”
Both McLaughlin and Ramsaroop say they will continue to push for inquiries into migrant worker deaths in the province.