Exclusion of migrant farm workers from public health insurance puts Nova Scotia agriculture at risk, advocates say

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Isabel Inclan
Special to Saltwire Network

Amidst the worsening labor crunch in Nova Scotia’s agriculture sector, the government’s exclusion of many migrant workers from public health insurance potentially puts more than 1,600 farm workers and the agri-food supply at risk, advocates warn.

Migrant advocates say that the provincial government’s “deliberate policy” excludes migrant workers from public health insurance, leaving them vulnerable.

Unlike provinces such as Ontario or Quebec, where migrants in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program are covered by public health upon arrival, farm workers in Nova Scotia must wait 12 months to be covered by the province’s Medical Services Insurance (MSI). However, most contracts only range from three to eight months, which makes it impossible for many migrant farm workers to be covered by public health.

The Nova Scotia Department of Health was asked why it doesn’t offer public health insurance to migrant farmworkers on arrival or why it won’t reduce the 12-month work permit requirement.

In an emailed statement, the department said: “Employers who hire foreign workers have the option to offer a private health insurance plan to seasonal workers,” adding that “the province is not involved in those discussions or decisions.”

The statement went on to say that “insurance status does not limit a person’s ability to receive treatment in Nova Scotia. However, the cost of treatment will be billed to the individual. The payment details will be managed and coordinated between Nova Scotia Health and the individual.”

Stacey Gomez, manager of the migrant worker program at No One Is Illegal-Nova Scotia, noted that many farmworkers are working here seasonally for 10 or 30 years, contributing taxes, but they are still not eligible for MSI, which she said is “very unjust.”

Stacey Gomez, manager of No One Is Illegal-Nova Scotia.  - Contributed
Stacey Gomez, manager of No One Is Illegal-Nova Scotia. – Contributed

Her organization is consulting migrant workers about their health-care needs.

“We have heard the case of a Mexican worker without access to the public health service and finally died,” Gomez said. “Another worker from Jamaica was diagnosed with cancer and later passed away. We don’t know all the details, but their stories show how the lack of MSI affects them.”

Every year, more than 1,600 migrant workers arrive in Nova Scotia to work on local farms as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Most of them are from Jamaica (919), followed by Mexico (580) and Guatemala (74), according to Statistics Canada.

Following medical advice

Jamaican Kerian Burnett, a 42-year-old mother of six children, arrived in April 2022 to work for eight months on a Nova Scotia strawberry farm. Last September, in the middle of her contract and after weeks of severe pain, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Burnett said her contract was terminated and she was booked to take a flight to return to Jamaica, which she refused because her doctor suggested staying here for treatment.

“I am here trying to seek some help to get medical attention,” she said in an interview with New Canadian Media.

Migrant farmworker Kerian Burnett of Jamaica, 42, was diagnosed with cancer, but she doesn't have access to Nova Scotia's public health insurance.  - Contributed
Migrant farmworker Kerian Burnett of Jamaica, 42, was diagnosed with cancer, but she doesn’t have access to Nova Scotia’s public health insurance. – Contributed

Burnett’s first treatments and medications were covered by her $100,000 private health insurance policy, but when her medical costs approached $80,000 and she wanted to buy medications, she said her card was denied without notice.

In the last nine months, her health has deteriorated, but she continues to fight for what she believes is her right to public health in Canada.

“I still feel pain every day,” she said. “Sometimes, anxiety and depression take me over completely. I have an ostomy and it often leaks, so it’s frustrating at times.”

She said she was forced to leave the farm and now lives temporarily in a Halifax apartment provided by a social worker.

“I am still on treatment and I have to follow up and may undergo another surgery sometime in August,” Burnett added.

“I still feel pain every day,”
— Kerian Burnett

Burnett said that the Jamaican Liaison Services — which administers the SAWP in Canada — had booked her a flight three times to return to Jamaica, but she refused to go because her doctor suggested that she stay in Canada for treatment.

“I was not contacted by them again until this day,” Burnett said, referring to Jamaican Liaison Services. “No one reached out to know how I was doing.”

New Canadian Media contacted the Jamaican Liaison Services, but didn’t get an answer.

Stuck in limbo

With cancer treatment that costs $1,100 per month and without any health insurance, Burnett is asking the Nova Scotia government why farmworkers aren’t covered by MSI.

“Why are farmer workers being barred from MSI in Nova Scotia? We pay taxes in this province, why can’t we get access to health care? We are humans just like any Canadian citizen.”

“We are working for $13.35 an hour. There is no way you get sick and pay the hospital bill. I am not doing this for myself alone; I am doing it for every farmer who doesn’t have access to public health in Canada,” Burnett said.

As of July 5, the GoFundMe campaign to support migrant farmworker Kerian Burnett's cancer treatment had raised $12,856 from a goal of $15,000.  - Contributed
As of July 5, the GoFundMe campaign to support migrant farmworker Kerian Burnett’s cancer treatment had raised $12,856 from a goal of $15,000. – Contributed

SAWP is a federal government program and she feels Ottawa should do something about the situation in Nova Scotia.

“All I beg of the federal government is access to health care and to appreciate us, farm workers,” she said. “Please consider us because we help build this economy too.”

For Gomez, Burnett’s case is “very emblematic” because it represents a deeply problematic health-care situation for migrant farm workers in Nova Scotia.

“She is falling into a gap because the provincial government argues that she can’t access public health care because she doesn’t have a one-year work permit,” said Gomez. “On the other hand, she doesn’t have access to private health insurance, so she is in a very vulnerable situation.”

Thanks to the support of No One Is Illegal and lawyer Thiago Buchert, Burnett was issued a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP), which was granted until Jan. 10, 2024. She also applied for health-care coverage through the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), but, so far, the application has not been approved.

Thiago Buchert, a legal counsel at Halifax Refugee Clinic.  - Contributed/Zoom
Thiago Buchert, a legal counsel at Halifax Refugee Clinic. – Contributed/Zoom

“Even though Burnett is ill and she has precarious access to health care, the IFHP application is moving very slowly,” said Buchert, a legal counsel at Halifax Refugee Clinic. “We applied on an emergency basis in December and we’ve yet to receive a response, despite numerous follow-ups and numerous attempts to speed up the processing of the application.”

Gomez and Buchert allege that Nova Scotia’s government has deliberately implemented a health system that excludes migrant farm workers from accessing public health, even though they are an important part of the agriculture industry.

“Nova Scotia has written its health-care program in a way to exclude migrant farm workers,” said Buchert. “It’s cheaper to not provide health-care insurance to people, regardless of the ethics of it.”

Meanwhile, a recent RBC report concluded that the agriculture sector in Canada could face a labor crisis due to the aging of the farmers and the temporality of the workers. It states that Canada could face a shortage of 24,000 general farm workers by 2033.

“A pathway to permanent residency for experienced temporary farm workers will immediately address this type of shortage,” the report added.

This story and photos are part of a partnership between the SaltWire and New Canadian Media.