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Black Coffins, Fiery Words

Protesters decry inspection cuts, rising job deaths.

Allison Cross 1 May 2006TheTyee.ca

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"We should remember the people that have lost their lives and got injured on the job, especially now with the 12-year-olds working. The provincial government has legally legislated them, in the province of BC, to work. So you know, it's getting to the point where it's getting scary."

Kristi, a 30-year-old who is employed as a front-line worker in the public sector, helped carry the banner that led yesterday's Day of Mourning procession from the Vancouver Art Gallery down to the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre. The procession featured 188 black coffins to commemorate the 188 individuals killed on the job in 2005. Of the 188 who died, 11 were youth. Of the 11, five worked in the construction industry.

One hundred and eighty-eight deaths is the highest number the province has seen in 25 years.

The procession was solemn and moved slowly to bagpipe music through the streets of downtown Vancouver. Before it began, the crowd stood in small groups, talking, sipping coffee, carrying the flags of their workplace unions and wearing commemorative black armbands.

Despite the growing number of youth injuries and deaths in the workplace, few youth were among the members of the crowd.

'They feel intimidated'

"I face a lot of discrimination at work, because of my age. I'm one of the youngest people that work in my area," said Kristi, who requested that her last name not be printed. "It's like, 'you're only so old so you can do all the work. You're eager, you're a keener.' Well, you know, my body gets just as tired as yours."

Kristi said she didn't want to give her last name, in fear she would be disciplined by her employer for speaking with the media.

As a youth facilitator with the BC Federation of Labour, Kristi speaks to high school students about their basic rights in the workplace. She said she sympathizes with the apprehension youth might feel when faced with unfair or unsafe working conditions.

"[I've] got co-workers now who are much older, and they even feel intimidated and feel that they are going to get in trouble if they say no or speak up," she said. "And those are adults. I couldn't imagine what it would be like as kids."

She said she hoped yesterday's procession would raise the right flags and catch the attention of the public and the government.

'Ultimate sacrifice'

Upon reaching their destination, the pallbearers stacked the black coffins one on top of the other on the front steps of the convention center, creating a black wall. The speakers took their place in front of the coffins to address the growing crowd.

"Each of these tragedies could have been prevented," said Jim Sinclair, the BC Federation of Labour President, who spoke with passion to the vocal but respectful crowd. "These workers could have gone home alive. They paid the ultimate sacrifice for earning a living."

"Shame!" the crowd answered in unison.

Although Sinclair was critical of WorkSafe BC and how the 42 percent decrease in workplace inspections over the last year has directly contributed to a rise in the death toll, he acknowledged their uphill battle against diminishing resources.

"I have nothing but compassion and solidarity for the people at WCB who are trying to do an impossible job without enough resources," he said.

"[We need] to move this province to the point where it's just as unacceptable to be killed or injured on the job, as it is unacceptable to get in the car and drive drunk."

'Evidence of the carnage'

"The coffins represent workers killed in the workplace, and one of them represents my son Grant," said Doug De Patie, father of 24-year-old Grant De Patie, who died while trying to stop a teenager from stealing gas in March of last year. De Patie was adamant in his disgust for employers who continue to break the law.

"Today, we bring evidence of the carnage. The gas station feels that customer service is paramount," he said.

De Patie urged the crowd to support "Grant's Law," legislation that would mandate pay-at-the-pump policies at all gas stations. Grant's grandfather, Chett Crellin, spoke to the necessity of parents paying attention to where their children are working.

"I appeal to all the parents," he said. "Show an interest. See what the safety is where they work. If not, we won't have them today. We'll have them at the next day of mourning. I'm appealing to you people as a father, a grandfather and a worker, we need to protect our up-and-coming workers."

"I'm getting tired of the speeches. I'm getting tired of the music. I'm getting tired coming to these events each year and seeing the list expand," said Barry O'Neill, the Canadian Union of Public Employees president.

O'Neill's address to the crowd was visibly and audibly heated. He didn't waver in his condemnation of worker statistics from 2005.

"In this province, you cannot get the law enforced, and that my friends, is attempted murder," he said. "We are going to push back, we must push back. If these kinds of deaths were not preventable, we wouldn't be here."

He called upon everyone in the crowd to affect change in their workplace and to pressure the provincial government for necessary reform.

'It was crazy what they asked'

Scott McRitchie, a long-time steelworker, said he stood up to his employers at a young age, when they asked him to perform a dangerous task.

"I've refused unsafe work before in my place," he said. "Thank God the shop steward backed me up. That's when I was a fairly new worker in the workplace. It was crazy what they wanted me to do."

McRitchie said he was comfortable bringing up issues in his workplace, for the most part, but that productivity can often clash with worker safety and common sense.

"The pressures always come when it's economic issues versus health and safety," he said. "People do things that they shouldn't do to meet some of the pressures that the employers are putting on the workers. But for the most part, people do a good job of saying what's safe, unsafe and what's reasonable."

The Day of Mourning took place in nearly 100 countries across the world and was organized in Vancouver by the BC Federation of Labour, the Vancouver District and Labour Council and the New Westminster and District Labour Council.

Allison Cross is on staff at The Tyee.

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