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We can’t turn our backs on Maria

Disability coverage should be mandatory for temporary foreign workers

By Todd Humber

A new wrinkle has developed in the controversy over the use of temporary foreign workers in Canada — and that’s what to do with Maria Victoria Venancio.

Venancio is a temporary foreign worker who came to Canada in 2011, according to the CBC, to work at a McDonald’s restaurant in Edmonton. In 2013, she was struck by a car while bicycling to work and severely injured. The accident left her in a wheelchair and unable to work.

Because she’s not working at McDonald’s, her work visa has expired. That means she is now in the country illegally and no longer has access to health care. (Though, in typical Canadian fashion, she is being taken care of thanks to a research project at the University of Alberta that is providing free care. We always seem to find a way.)

She is also facing expulsion back to the Philippines, her home country. The level of care won’t be the same as in Alberta, and her job prospects are dim because of her injuries. According to media accounts, there is a chance she might be able to walk again with the assistance of a cane — but that could require hundreds if not thousands of hours of physical therapy.

McDonald’s said she opted out of her benefits package, according to the CBC. Therefore, she doesn’t have short- or long-term disability coverage — though she is apparently suing the restaurant for medical and disability coverage.

Think what you want of the temporary foreign worker program, the need for it and whether or not fast-food workers should be brought in from overseas to staff jobs in cities like Edmonton — but understand it created the conditions for Venancio’s unfortunate situation. By all accounts, she played by the rules. She was brought in to work at a restaurant, legally, under the program. And she was injured, off the job, during her commute.

We simply can’t turn our backs on her.

Should she have opted out of her benefits coverage, as she apparently did? Obviously not. It’s not a good decision for most employees, let alone a temporary foreign worker. But these are low-paying jobs, and every penny counts — it’s understandable why a worker making minimum wage (or close to it) would skip it.

So let’s call this a major loophole in the TFWP and try to close it. Perhaps employers who want to hire temporary foreign workers should be required to cover 100 per cent of the premiums for short- and long-term disability benefits.

Unfortunate and unforeseen things can — and do — happen. It’s an unfortunate part of life. But it’s inexcusable that she could be in a situation where she is deported, essentially as a paraplegic, with few options to make a living and no support from her employer.

Some employers have decried the increased rules around the use of temporary foreign workers, and more regulation would certainly be unwelcome in these circles. In this space, I’m always loathe to call for more regulation.

But I can say one thing with certainty — if she is sent home, in an injured state with no support whatsoever, that is a failure on our society. And it’s one we should never let happen again.

Todd Humber is the associate publisher and managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information.


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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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