Kerian Burnett is a 42-year-old Jamaican mother of six and grandmother of two. She arrived in Nova Scotia in April 2022 to work on a strawberry farm, but she started feeling ill about two months later. In September 2022, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Burnett’s employer then let her go due to her illness, meaning she lost access to health insurance. However, her doctor in Nova Scotia recommended that she remain here to access healthcare. If she is sent home, it’s likely that she could not receive the treatment she needs in time to save her life.
By sharing her story, Burnett is courageously drawing attention to the Healthcare for All campaign, which calls on the Nova Scotia government to grant immediate access to Medical Services Insurance (MSI) for all migrant workers. It’s a demand put forward by No One Is Illegal – Nova Scotia (NOII-NS) and dozens of other migrant rights organizations since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not doing this for myself alone,” said Burnett, in a video directed to Health and Wellness Minister Michelle Thompson. “I’m doing this for every farm worker that does not have access to public healthcare here in Canada.”
Seasonal labour, structural injustice
Migrant workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) across Canada are already made highly vulnerable by their conditions of employment. They must live in housing provided by their employer and are heavily surveilled during shifts. Since the employers get to choose which workers to bring back in subsequent years, any question or complaint about the demanding, often dangerous working conditions could result in that worker being fired or not selected to return to the SAWP. Workers may even be banned from participating in the program.
If a migrant worker wishes to transfer to a different employer, they have to fight an uphill battle. In situations where a worker can prove abuse from their employer, they can apply for an open work permit that gives them the ability to work anywhere for a period of time set by immigration officials. However, there are many barriers to accessing this. NOII-NS is the only organization in Nova Scotia that offers free support to migrant workers in the transfer process.
As if their freedom of movement being curtailed during employment weren’t enough, migrant workers are also required to leave Canada immediately after their contracts end. Those who choose to stay—to access improved living conditions, seek higher wages, or for other reasons—are in the precarious situation of being undocumented migrants, leaving them still without legal rights and protections.
In this context, the fact that thousands of migrant workers are denied healthcare has even more dire impacts. Access to public healthcare varies between provinces. In Nova Scotia, migrant workers are not granted MSI until they have worked here continuously for one year. This time requirement automatically excludes all migrant farm workers participating in the SAWP, which contracts workers for a maximum of eight months at a time.
Stacey Gomez, a member of NOII-NS, explains that even though migrant farm workers are supposed to receive health insurance through their employer, they are often not informed about what that insurance even includes. If workers express any potential health concerns to management, they risk their employment. In one recent case, says Gomez, a worker asked to see a doctor about a workplace-related medical concern. The following day, he was put on a flight back to his home country.
In fact, this is what Kerian Burnett’s employer attempted to do. After she fell ill, her employer booked her a flight home, and then another—both of which she refused to take.
Fighting for healthcare for all
No One Is Illegal – Nova Scotia and dozens of other organizations making up the Migrant Rights Network are fighting for healthcare for all migrants.
The #HealthcareForAll campaign escalated during the height of COVID-19. Migrant workers were placed at enormous risk of contracting the virus due to the cramped conditions of employer-provided housing and insufficient space to isolate allowing illness to spread rapidly, along with having little access to healthcare. And when vaccines became available, notes Stacey Gomez, often workers either were not able to access them, or were not provided with information about the vaccine to be able to make an informed choice about it.
While it was equally true before, the pandemic has brought to light for many that all migrant workers need and deserve access to public healthcare. Healthcare is a human right in Canada, so why not for those who do some of the most essential and dangerous work there is?
An average of two SAWP participants die every year in Canada. Most recently, there was the deeply saddening loss of Alejandro Rios, a migrant worker, husband, and father of three. Rios, who had been coming from Mexico to work in Nova Scotia for about nine years, died of a heart attack on May 3, 2023. No One Is Illegal – Nova Scotia is currently fundraising to support his family.
Workers coming to Canada, paying taxes here, and performing many types of backbreaking, low-waged work, should not be denied the benefits of our public healthcare system—a system supposedly built on principles of fairness and equal access. There is also nothing fair about the fact that migrant workers pay into employment insurance, yet the system doesn’t allow many workers, including Kerian, to draw EI benefits when either their contracts run out or they become unable to work due to illness and lose their income.
We cannot ignore the exploitative reality of an employment system that brings migrant workers to Canada because capitalists need their labour, but then discards those workers when they need help.
Supporting the #HealthcareForAll campaign
We can all get involved in winning Healthcare for All, both in Nova Scotia and across Canada.
Below are some important ways to contribute:
- Donate to the GoFundMe campaigns to help Burnett and Alejandro Rios’ family.
- Volunteer your time and talents with NOII-NS to support local migrant workers.
- Call and/or write to your elected officials to demand that they grant access to MSI for Kerian and all migrant workers.
- Donate to the Migrant Solidarity Fund.
- Check out the Migrant Rights Network to learn how you can support your local migrant rights organizations.
Take Action Now: Status For All!
Beyond Healthcare for All, another critical goal of migrant justice movements across Canada is Status for All. For the past few months, the federal government has been collecting public input towards changing Canada’s immigration policy, and in the coming weeks they will make a decision about the regularization of all non-status migrants.
Why is Status for All so important? Regularizing (giving permanent resident status to) all migrants upon arrival in Canada would ensure that migrants not only have immediate access to healthcare, but also that they have rights and protections at work under Canadian labour law, could bring their families to join them, and could finally gain the stability and security that are impossible as long as they are undocumented or temporary.
With the Federal Cabinet voting on regularization in the coming weeks, every action counts! The Migrant Rights Network offers multiple ways to add your voice, from making phone calls to Cabinet Ministers and visiting their offices to sending letters and emails.
Together, we can win fairness and equity for Kerian Burnett and for all migrant workers, students, refugees, and undocumented people.
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