A Summary and Reflection on Language Barriers and Workers’ Compensation Access in Ontario and Quebec / Stephanie Premji, Momtaz Begum, Alex Medley, Ellen MacEachen, Ron Saunders. Hamilton: McMaster University. School of Labour Studies, 2019 Oct.
Established in the 1900s, the purpose of the workers compensation was to ensure those injured at work received wage replacement, healthcare, labour market reintegration and other services. To many, including myself, this purpose can be summarised in a cautionary goal of the workers’ compensation: to stop injured workers from becoming a burden to their family and to society. Yet, there are many cases in which injured workers fall through the cracks and are caged in poverty and desperation. This study looks into a specific case in which individuals fall through the cracks, specifically the case of workers who have language barriers in Ontario and Quebec.
In Ontario, according to data taken from the 2016 census, approximately 2.5% people do not speak one of the official languages. In fact, a study done by the Social Planning Council, Toronto, found that one in 20 Torontonians cannot speak English or French. The study found that these individuals faced barriers with finding a job, being active community members and enjoying the benefits of a decent life. How does this statistical reality impact the incidence of workplace injuries and the experience of injured workers? In order to answer this question, we are made aware of another figure that depicts the reality faced by immigrant workers with English language barriers. This group is also over presented in precarious workplaces (Colour of Poverty Fact Sheet 5: Racialized Poverty in Employment ).
Language barriers direct workers to difficulties with job searches, and higher likelihood of exposure to harmful conditions in their workplaces. Therefore, we see a disproportionate amount of immigrant workers with language barriers in workplaces that have elevated risks and rates of occupational injuries, compared to other workers. What happens to this group when they experience a workplace injury? This study provides us with the stories of those individuals. I will highlight a few results that resonated with me.
Often times, I encounter injured workers with recent immigration experience, with English language barriers and whose Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims have been denied due to injury reporting difficulties. This study provides us with detailed worker experience on this. There are many reasons for reporting barriers to this group, one of them is directly linked to the precarious nature of this group’s employment. Many workers in precarious workplaces are afraid of losing their jobs due to limited job prospects in a labour market that undermines their previous learning and work experience. Secondly, many of the workers are unaware of the workers compensation system or their rights to benefits and WSIB services when injured at work. These facts impact the worker negatively. When they do report to the WSIB, there is a delay in reporting. The system does not look fairly upon those who have a reporting delay.
The study highlights the importance of positive interaction between the injured worker and their healthcare providers and employers. Health care providers are vital to the recovery of injured workers, even helping the injured worker with the initiation of the WSIB claim. However, due to language barriers, workers find it hard to access health care professionals who speak their language. Even if the worker finds a primary care provider, many injured workers need a specialist who is accessible to them via a translator or one who speaks their language. With regards to the worker’s interaction with employers, the study finds that employers sometimes harassed injured workers with language barriers by using threats such as job loss and deportation. Thus, many workers concealed their injury or continued to work without properly recovering. Workers were also discouraged to file claims and encouraged to sign “under the table” agreements.
The study also illustrates the hurdles in the workers’ compensation system after a claim is accepted. In order for a worker to receive wage replacement and healthcare services after a workplace injury, they are responsible for reporting their injury as soon as they are injured, providing a clear description of the areas of injury, attending WSIB return to work meetings, and contacting their caseworker on a regular basis. However, the study finds that many workers found gaps in interpretation and translation services, leading to barriers that directly impact their access to compensation. The workers found that the communication barriers had a wide spread effect in undermining their claims, and even making them appear less credible in the process.
Workers with language barriers do not solely face the barriers in communicating with the WSIB. They also face the structural issues already in the system. These structural issues, along with language barriers affected the injured workers mental and physical health, recovery and return to work. The study noted structural issues such as the adversarial nature of the claim due to employers actively contesting claims, the complexity of the workers’ compensation system and terminology, the time limits to file for appeal and an absence of face to face interactions. To highlight one of the issues, I will point to the return to work process for those injured workers who cannot return to their pre-injury employer. In this case, an injured worker has the right to access the WSIB for return to work assistance. However, due to the existing problems in return to work services such as short, inadequate retraining courses and job search assistance, along with low language retraining and market disadvantages for those with a language barriers, injured workers were subjected to further difficulties.
The study provides recommendations for the workers’ compensation system. These recommendations reflect how the system can be improved to facilitate communication for those with linguistic barriers.
Rachel Gnanayutham, Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic
- Premji, Stephanie. “Return to Work, Precarity and Immigration/Migration.” National Symposium on Return to Work in a Changing World of Work, May 2019, Ottawa. (video presentation)
- Premji, Stephanie. “Barriers-to-Return to Work in a Context of Social Vulnerability.” Bancroft Workshop, 17 Nov. 2016 (video presentation)