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Jeleel Stewart, injured on the job and living in poverty

Advocates for the rights of migrant farmworkers are calling for an end to exploitation; 'I don’t think any worker in Ontario should live in poverty when they get hurt on the job'
Kit Andres pleads for WSIB to help Jeleel Stewart and others who have been injured in a workplace accident.

Thanks to Jane Andres and Kit Andres, advocates for the rights of migrant farmworkers, this year’s National Day of Mourning service in Virgil addressed the plight of Jeleel Stewart, a farmworker injured years ago when working for Mori Nurseries.

In March 2008, Stewart, then 34, returned to Niagara-on-the-Lake for his second year at Mori Nurseries. Two months later, his left hand was crushed by a forklift in a workplace accident.

After three months, Stewart returned home, where he continued physiotherapy and was partially compensated by WSIB for two years.

Although he was unable to regain the use of his hand and fingers, in 2010 he received a letter from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), saying that since “he could conceivably find work at a gas bar in Niagara because he still had one working hand,” says Andres, “despite the fact that he lives in Jamaica,” he was no longer entitled to compensation.

This practice is known as deeming, and MPP Wayne Gates has been trying to get it stopped,

In December 2022 he presented Bill 57, which has not passed, asking that WSIB not be allowed to continue the practice of deeming as it stands.

Again last week, Gates stood in the legislature and spoke of the Day of Mourning. “We should remember people have lost their lives, and we should fight for the living,” he said. He also brought up Bill 57, how it relates to the practice of deeming, and what has happened to Jeleel Stewart, referring to the Andres’ plea for Jeleel not to be forgotten.

“There’s an article in the local paper in NOTL — it’s called The Local — about a worker that was deemed,” Gates said in the legislature. “He was a farm worker who lost his arm (the use of his arm), and they (WSIB) deemed him.” He explained WSIB told Jaleel, a farmer, “could pump gas with the other arm. And because he was deemed, he’s living in poverty. Why would we not get rid of deeming? I don’t think any worker in the province of Ontario should live in poverty when they get hurt on the job.”

At Friday’s service, Gates addressed the WSIB, saying “if you care about workers, stop deeming today, for the National Day of Mourning.”

Kit Andres told the small group in Virgil about learning about workplace death at the age of 12 years old and a student at Col. John Butler School, when classmate Tom Murray found his dad had died. “That has always stayed with me,” said Kit, that a parent might not return from work at the end of the day, or like Jeleel, that they will return home to their family at the end of the season, injured and unable to work.

“They come here, leaving their family, knowing they may not return, or may return injured. That was the case with Jeleel, who returned home with his arm severely damaged and unable to support his family. Jeleel is in the hospital right now, and we don’t know who long he will live.”

All workers deserve protection, whether they are Canadian citizens or farmworkers, she said, calling for WSIB to step up and do what’s right for Jeleel’s family, and for every worker who is injured.