Migrant worker fights for health coverage in Nova Scotia
With the help of her community, a Jamaican migrant worker in Nova Scotia who was diagnosed with cervical cancer last September has finally been approved for the federal government's interim health care program.
But it took eight long months of fighting and organizing – during which time the federal and provincial governments bickered over who should cover her health care costs and about whether to approve her application for the Interim Federal Health Program.
Kerian Burnett, 42, says that while she is grateful for being approved, she wants to share her story so that other potential migrant workers know the systemic flaws built into the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). These programs bring workers from other countries to Canada on a temporary basis in order to work for Canadian employers, under conditions that leave them with fewer rights than workers who are citizens or permanent residents.
"I could have died in those eight months. Based on the urgency of my health, I think it was a long time for them to make that decision," she told The Media Co-op in a phone interview, adding that no worker "should have to go through that process" simply to receive health care coverage.
"Whether you come for the first time or you come for 20 years, (coverage should) be the same for everybody. We contribute to the country. We pay taxes. So I think it was unfair."
'I'm not going to leave here'
Burnett arrived in Canada in April 2022 as a first-time migrant worker in a strawberry field in Colchester County, N.S. At first, she saw it as an opportunity to help her six children and two grandchildren back home in Jamaica.
But that dream quickly turned to a nightmare as a result of her employer firing her on June 21, citing her "health issues," according to a Notice of Termination of Employment from Balamore Farm Ltd. obtained by The Media Co-op.
However, that letter is dated Oct. 6. Kerian says that's when the employer gave her the letter, despite knowing that she had been diagnosed with cancer in September and that she had an upcoming MRI on Oct. 20. The letter says she must leave the farm by Oct. 12 because the "job required of this group of temporary foreign workers of this location is complete."
But Burnett never backs down from a challenge.
"When I was put to this test (being diagnosed with cervical cancer), I was forced to leave the country. And being the type of person I am…it was like telling them, 'listen, I'm not going to leave here,'" she recalls. "I was taken from my country to come here to work…so give me a chance at life, a shot to live again."
For the next eight months, Burnett and grassroots advocates would stage a two-pronged strategy of advocacy and community support, says Stacy Gomez of No One is Illegal - Nova Scotia (NOII-NS), which organizes with migrant workers across that province.
On the advocacy side, with the help of the Halifax Refugee Clinic and lawyer Thiago Buchert, they assisted Burnett in filling out the applications for a temporary resident permit and the interim health program as early as last December. While the temporary resident permit was approved by January, she had to continue fighting to get health care coverage.
This included an open letter sent to Nova Scotia Minister of Health and Wellness Michelle Thompson signed by over 26 organizations, as well as continuous petitioning, postering, and public education campaigns around Halifax and Antigonish. At one point, enough community members were mobilized to contact the office of the deputy minister of health that the office’s phone line had to be disconnected.
Gomez says while Burnett's struggle has helped "put a human face" on the precarious health conditions migrant workers face in Nova Scotia and the government's inertia on the matter, NOII-NS and community members have been campaigning on the need to extend health care coverage (MSI) to all migrants for years. In 2021, over 100 migrant workers responded to an informal poll, and identified the need to extend health care to all workers as being among their top five priorities. Even through the COVID lockdowns, she says they continued holding virtual events, circulating petitions, and doing everything they could to educate migrant workers about their rights.
All of this, says Gomez, helped build a base "of people who are committed to migrant justice" that could be quickly mobilized by the time a friend of Burnett’s began worrying about her health last June, which led to Burnett meeting with NOII-NS members. A volunteer group was then formed that helped take Burnett to the hospital, buy groceries, drop off meals, and even helped find emergency housing for her – "emotional work that is really integral to Kerian's well-being," says Gomez.
"The advocacy cannot happen without the well-being of the person who is at the centre of it," she says, adding that this meant whatever actions or advocacy happened had to happen at Burnett's pace, who spent several months in hospital in Halifax, paying over $1,100 per month out out pocket. A GoFundMe page was also set up last October that, by time of writing, has received $14,000 from over 200 donors.
Several community events were also organized, including one called Cards for Kerian, where community members wrote get-well cards for her. The aim of this part of the campaign, says Gomez, was to show government officials that there "was broad support for Kerian."
Ultimately, says Gomez, it was Kerian's determination to stay and fight that pushed the federal government to take action. As well, mobilizing around individual cases can be an important part of building momentum to win broader policy change.
"What Kerian did is incredible and took a lot of bravery…because many times migrant workers are afraid to speak out because of the risks involved to them," she explains. "They could be fired, sent back to their home country and not called back to the farm work program again…So, her speaking out puts a face on this very important issue."
While the TFWP and SAWP are federally administered, migrant workers’ health care and labour rights fall under provincial jurisdiction.
However, unlike in Ontario and some other provinces, where migrant workers have access to coverage upon arrival – at least in theory – in Nova Scotia migrants need a 12-month work permit to be approved.
Most agricultural workers like Burnett, who come through SAWP, can only work in the country for eight months at a time.
Gomez says this means governments often "treat migrant workers' rights like a hot potato – no one wants to take responsibility."
This leads to many workers regularly becoming sick or injured on the job, says Gomez, and "many times they're sent back to their country of origin without getting the medical attention they require."
"So, the delay that we saw in getting a response to Kerian's application just highlights that we need a permanent solution to this issue around access to health care for migrant workers," she says.
In an email statement, Nova Scotia's Health and Wellness Department said that while they cannot speak to individual cases, it's left up to the employers' discretion to decide whether or not to offer a private health insurance plan to seasonal workers, what it will cost, and how much they will fund. “The province is not involved in those discussions or decisions,” it said.
However, it added, “insurance status does not limit a person’s ability to receive treatment in Nova Scotia. Though, the cost of treatment will be billed to the individual.”
The statement did not address The Media Co-op's questions regarding whether they are considering updating legislation to provide public coverage to all migrant workers, or about the rate of injured migrant workers in that province.
While the response from officials has been largely "disappointing," Gomez says this "just means we have to keep pushing until they don't have any option but to respond and make this change" in the law.
Kerian's case is not an isolated one. Justicia 4 Migrant Workers, which advocates for migrant workers rights, says that while "wages are relatively low," they "go a long way back in workers’ home communities."
"However, their temporary visa status grants them few rights and protections in Canada. Many face deplorable living and working conditions and if they complain they get sent home on the first flights back."
The right decision
For Burnett, all of this has been – and continues to be – literally a matter of life and death. In Jamaica, she says, there simply aren't the resources to treat cancer, meaning a diagnosis is many times akin to a death sentence.
But in Canada, she has been able to learn a lot about how to treat her illness and to cope with it, and she has met a lot of survivors who help give her hope.
Burnett says she's not sure what she will do come January, when her federal coverage runs out. What she does know is that she's doing the right thing.
"I don't think I would survive if I went back to Jamaica, based on not knowing about cancer and not having any hope or seeing (many survivors)," she says.
"So, I think I made the right decision to stay here. If for some reason I die in the process, God forbid, I lived my life. And to know that I fought this hard, I am very happy and proud of myself."