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October 15, 2012

Canada: Immigrants being killed on the job

The Canadian Charger

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When Jayesh Prajapati, 44, a gas attendant at a west-end Shell station in Toronto was killed on Saturday September 15, after he tried to stop a man attempting to drive away without paying his $112 bill, it was indicative of Ontario's lax labour codes and lack of enforcement of existing codes, resulting often in immigrant workers being victimized, according to a couple of labour advocates.

Mr. Prajapati was struck down and dragged by a vehicle. He was rushed to hospital, where he died shortly after.

Although Mr. Prajapati was an immigrant from India, Victor Kwong, media relations officer with Toronto Police Services said the incident is not being investigated as a hate crime because it doesn't fit the guidelines.

“There are definitive guidelines to what is considered to be and investigated as a hate crime ... Basically it follows (the criteria) of the human rights code – faith, religion, creed, colour, gender and sexual orientation.”

Constable Kwong said in this incident, Mr. Prajapati wasn't run over because he was an immigrant. The intention of the alleged perpetrator was to get away without paying for his gas.

Vernon Edwards, Director of Occupational Health and Safety at the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), said immigrant workers are often vulnerable because they don't know their health and safety rights – including the right to refuse unsafe work – and they don't know the law forbids employers from retaliating against workers who exercise their rights.

“They're (immigrant workers) often put in harm's way by unscrupulous employers. It happens often in the construction industry. In the case of the gas station attendant, he may have had the cost of stolen gas deducted from his pay cheque. We find this practice is widespread, although it's totally illegal, so much so that we've set up a bad gas hotline.”

Vinod Sharma, president of the United Hindu Congress of Canada said his organization has received a number of calls from immigrants from South Asia who were experiencing similar situations in the workplace.

“They're scared that if somebody comes and steals gas they don't know if they will be killed.”

Mr. Edwards said the OFL is targeting the retail gas industry, talking to workers, the police and a couple of former owners of retail gas outlets; and OFL officials have determined that the practice of deducting the cost of stolen gas from the worker's pay cheque is rampant.

Meanwhile, Linda Danouche, Director of the Toronto Workers' Health & Safety Legal Clinic (TWHSC) said lax regulations under the Ontario Health & Safety Act could have been a contributing factor in Mr. Prajapati's death.

“Other provinces, such as Saskatchewan, have safeguards in place for these kinds of situations: he was working at night, dealing with cash and working alone. These kinds of situations always have hazards and risks and there are policies and programs to deal with risks and provide safeguards, such as protective barriers, locks, a TV monitor, an alarm and a coworker present.”

Ms. Danouche said the TWHSC gets many reports of unsafe working conditions – that continue for many months. At the same time, she said that especially migrant workers are reluctant to complain because they may be sent back home or not have their contract renewed the following year.

Ms. Danouche said if she parks illegally outside her office she will get a ticket within half an hour because parking enforcement officers are constantly roving the area. She then asks why health and safety officials can't rove around construction sites to detect safety violations.

“Who hasn't walked by a roofing site and seen workers with no fall and arrest equipment, such as a harness.”

She said she gets coroner's inquest reports regularly as a result of workers in the construction and mining sectors being killed on the job and a large proportion of these people are immigrants.

“Farming is one of the largest areas where fatalities occur and these people are definitely immigrants for the most part.”

She said that when a death occurs in the construction or mining sector a coroner's inquest – including a hearing, recommendations and documentation – is required by law. Coroner's inquests are not required for deaths in the industrial or farming sectors, but Ms. Danouche said they used to be required for industrial accidents.

The September 19, 2012 edition of Ontario Political Forum reported that on September 10 a farm worker was killed on the job while working in an orchard operation near Belleville, Ontario. Fausto Martinez-Izazaga, 38, died when an industrial water tank at the agriculture complex fell and crushed him. Mr. Fausto was a Mexican national working in Canada as a farm worker under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Thirteen migrant farm workers have died on the job in Ontario this year.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) issued a press release condemning the Ontario and Canadian government for their failure to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for migrant farm workers:

"It has been a devastating year in Ontario. We are saddened by this terrible news and deeply concerned that another worker in Ontario agriculture has been killed. We have seen casualty rates continue to climb with little or no response from the federal or Ontario governments.”

Because most of these deaths are not reported in the mainstream media, there is little public pressure to increase workplace safety, especially when immigrant and migrant workers bear the brunt of the hardships.

Mr. Edwards said that as of the end of August, 54 workplace fatalities have been reported to the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), but it's only a few traumatic fatalities that get any attention at all.

“Of these (54 fatalities), I hear about half a dozen of them. The mainstream media generally doesn't report people dying on the job, only a few traumatic cases.”

Sid Ryan, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, said that every year more than 80 workers in Ontario die. He said although it's a national disgrace, it's regarded as the cost of doing business.

He said police have the authority to lay charges for negligence in on-the-job deaths that can mean jail time under the Criminal Code but they have not exercised that power enough.

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