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Rally prompts province to cover health benefits

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The migrant farm workers who do back-breaking labour for minimum wage were given a thank-you gift from the province -- free health treatment in Manitoba.

Advocates rallied outside the legislature Wednesday to ask Manitoba Health to cover the 400 Mexican labourers in the province from Mexico who are part of the federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. To their surprise, the province agreed.

At the rally, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Christine Melnick announced health coverage will be provided for the seasonal workers, who plant and harvest produce every year.

"This will give workers great peace of mind," said Jennifer deGroot with the Migrant Worker Solidarity Network. "I'm shocked. I'm thrilled," she said on the steps of the legislature. The network and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives organized the rally and news conference to release Migrant Voices, a survey report on migrant workers in Manitoba.

The workers, it said, have been paying for private health insurance. They also pay taxes, contribute to the Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance but are ineligible for jobless benefits.

"They're paying into the system," said Melnick. "While they're here, they should be able to access services," she said, estimating the maximum cost at $500,000 for the 400 workers.

"Our government recognizes the hard and physically demanding work done by seasonal agricultural workers and we have heard the challenges they have faced with accessing health care," said Melnick. "Manitoba's economy relies on seasonal agricultural workers and we compete with other provinces to attract them here, which is why we're changing our health coverage, to be in line with that already offered in Saskatchewan."

Health-care coverage hasn't been an onerous expense for migrant workers, said Mike Giffin, of the family-owned Mayfair Farms in Portage la Prairie. He was surprised by news the province will pay for health coverage for the migrant workers they've been hiring for more than 30 seasons

"I'm not sure why they did that," said Giffin. "They always get taken care of," said the berry and vegetable producer. "It's never an issue."

The workers currently buy health insurance through RBC. "It's a few cents a day," Giffin said.

"We have 15 guys right now," he said. "We're just planting." At the peak of the season, they have 45 migrant workers, he said.

Jose Chinchilla, a Latino Winnipegger, said he took part in the rally Wednesday to speak up for workers isolated on farms who don't speak English and won't complain.

After he came to Manitoba from El Salvador 20 years ago, Chinchilla said he visited farm workers in the Brandon area on Sundays when he lived there. They knew an employer may not invite them back to work the next season if they got sick and missed work. If injured, they might get sent home before the season ended, said Chinchilla.

"One guy cut his thumb cutting broccoli," said Chinchilla. "He needed stitches. After a week, he was sent back to Mexico." Chinchilla said the Mexican migrant workers don't have a lot of choices. "They know it's a hard job and they're grateful." Working for minimum wage in Manitoba beats the alternative. "In the States, it's a lot worse." Undocumented migrant workers have no rights or protections, he said.

The federal Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program has been in place for nearly 50 years with some 30,000 migrant farm labourers coming to Canada every year. They leave behind wives and kids, said the Migrant Voices survey.

"If they're family people, they're less likely to escape and stay," said Lynne Fernandez of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. They have no more than a Grade 10 education, so they're considered unskilled and not eligible to immigrate. Some return annually but there is no path to citizenship for them here, Fernandez said.

"They're good enough to work here but not good enough to live here."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2013 A8

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