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Workers travelled in ‘barbaric’ conditions, inquest hears

Contracted farm workers in B.C. are often forced to choose between dangerous travel conditions or losing a day’s wages, a lawyer at the inquest into a fatal car crash said today.

“Overloaded vehicles are the norm rather than the exception,” counsel Jim Sayre said.

The lawyer is representing the families of three East Indian woman killed on March 7, 2007. Sixteen farm workers plus the driver were squeezed into a 15-passenger van. All survivors suffered serious injury. There were only two seatbelts.

Evidence suggests four of the women were packed onto a makeshift plywood bench in the back of the vehicle. The exposed wood had nails sticking out of it.

“It looked in my opinion somewhat barbaric,” said RCMP Cpl. Kurt Rosenberg, a former collisions expert. “It was not adequate for transport.”

Some women who entered the van that day had to make a tough choice, counsel Sayre said. “Workers should not be forced to decide between giving up work and sitting on a bench of that nature,” he said.

The van belonged to a contracted transport company called RHA Enterprises. It was owned by Harwinder and Ranjit Gill. Yesterday, Harwinder denied she or her husband had the wooden bench installed.

Ranjit bought the van two years before the crash at an RCMP auction.

“Not a chance,” Cst Vince Chand responded yesterday when asked if police ever install exposed wooden seats.

Evidence suggested the protruding nails cut into flesh when the van flipped. And the seat’s metal frame impeded rescue efforts, Chand said. “It took probably twice as long as it had to,” he said.

In the two and a half years since the crash, the province has stepped up its inspection efforts. Incidents of run-down or dangerous vehicles in the agriculture industry have decreased greatly, testimony today suggested.

But counsel Sayre, who works closely with the B.C. Federation of Labour, said the province needs “draconian” measures to make transport vehicles less dangerous.

Owners who are caught overloading could be forced to give up their vans, he suggested.

“Certainly we’re not hearing that the industry has become safer,” Sayre said. “A lot more needs to be done.”

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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