B.C. farm workers' deaths highlight need for safety reforms

Campbell government watered down safety standards after coming to power in 2001

 

Vancouver (9 March 2007) - The tragic highway accident that killed three farm workers and injured more than a dozen others this week in B.C. highlights the need for improved safety laws for farm workers says Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFL).

The victims died when a van filled with 17 people flipped on the Trans-Canada highway near Abbotsford. They all worked at a greenhouse in the Fraser Valley community of Chilliwack.

Tow truck removes demolished van from Trans-Canada Highway near Abbotsford

After coming to power in 2001, the Liberal government of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell rescinded regulations enforcing inspections of farms and farm vehicles, as well as minimum-wage rules for migrant farm workers.

"We’ve seen too many accidents. Again and again, we learn we need more inspections and better enforcement of safety laws," Sinclair says.

"Instead of action, the B.C. Liberal government (of Premier Gordon Campbell) used their first term to water down standards protecting working conditions and scrapped the inter-agency inspection team needed to effectively crack down on bad employers in this industry," he notes.

"The provincial government must act now, before another accident, to step up inspection and enforcement and take immediate steps to improve worker safety."

The B.C. Federation of Labour has repeatedly called for improvements to working conditions for farm workers. It is now calling on the province to:

  • Immediately implement an inter-agency team, including representatives of the Workers Compensation Board (WCB), the RCMP, Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), and the Motor Vehicle Branch, to ensure responsibility for enforcement is clearly delineated and acted upon.
  • Restore and increase roadside spot checks of vehicles transporting farm workers, aggressively pursuing overcrowding, lack of seat belts and the mechanical conditions of vehicles.
  • Ensure farm workers receive the same protection under the Employment Standards Act as other workers, including overtime and statutory holiday pay, and access to a complaints process.
  • Restore Employment Standards staffing levels to ensure a basic level of enforcement of employers is required.

"There's nobody inspecting the vans used to transport the workers,'' argues Charan Gill, secretary-treasurer of the Surrey-based Canadian Farmworkers Union. "They say they go on the farms to inspect but they don't any more. The conditions for farm workers haven't improved."

Gill notes that in 2003 B.C. introduced labour laws that excluded farm workers from hours of work, overtime and statutory holiday pay. These changes often mean farm
workers without adequate sleep may be behind the wheel of a vehicle, he said, adding that vehicles are often overloaded and lack seat belts.

"They need more inspectors to send a message they do care about farm workers," Gill said.

Meanwhile, the crash spurred Opposition NDP members to press the government for increased inspections and protections. "Without comprehensive field inspections, this government has no way of knowing if contractors are complying with vehicle registrations."

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has been among the most outspoken voices in the Canadian labour movement in demanding reforms to protect the rights of migrant farm workers. NUPGE

More information:
2004 BCFL report: Hand-Harvesters of Fraser Valley Berry Crops

Issues and Campaigns