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Labour Double-Standards Blamed for Farmworkers' Deaths

Relatives, unions decry declining standards.

By Tom Sandborn 16 Mar 2007 |

Tom Sandborn is a regular contributor to The Tyee with a focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Minister of Labour Olga Ilich

Did Amarjit Kaur Bal, Sarabjit Kaur Sidhu and Sukhwinder Kaur Punia die in vain? The results from a meeting held March 15 in downtown Vancouver may determine the answer to that question.

Family members of farmworkers killed in the roll-over accident of an overloaded labour contractor's van last week and leaders of the B.C. labour movement met on the morning of March 15 with Minister of Labour Olga Ilich and Minister of Agriculture Pat Bell in Vancouver. They presented a comprehensive list of 30 proposals to remedy safety and employment standards abuses in B.C. fields and greenhouses. The submission to the ministers also calls on the government to strike down a controversial memorandum signed by the BC Liberals and the province's large agricultural organizations, which critics say has paved the way for lax enforcement of safety and employment standards protections in the industry.

Harsharan Bal, the son of one of the workers killed in last week's accident, told The Tyee that he left the meeting with the hope that the ministers would do something to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that killed his mother, Amarjit. The elder Bal, a recent immigrant from India, had been working in B.C. agriculture since November of 2006.

"The last day with my mother, she cooked food for me and my little sister," Harsharan Bal said. "Then we saw her body on TV, with her shoes knocked off and on the highway. It was really killing to see that. We came to this meeting for future protection. We don't want what happened to us to happen to others."

The hands that feed us

The meeting was conducted as hastily ordered roadside inspections of farm labour vans were being conducted by various agencies -- including RCMP, enforcement staff from the Ministry of Transportation and WorkSafeBC -- near Abbotsford and Delta. Jeff Knight of the Ministry of Transportation told The Tyee via e-mail that the emergency spot-checks involved 35 ministry inspectors, including an extra 10 brought into the Lower Mainland from around the province to staff the operation.

In a phone interview immediately following the meeting, Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, told The Tyee that he was left cautiously optimistic that the Liberal government might respond positively to the suggestions from the survivors and from organized labour for reforms that could help prevent tragedies like last week's highway deaths.

"I'll be waiting to see if there is an announcement in the next week or two," he said. "It is particularly important that the government move immediately to establish an inter-agency body to address safety and employment standard issues for farmworkers, a team involving the RCMP, the Employment Standards Branch, the Commercial Safety Branch, the Motor Vehicle Branch and the federal revenue department. The inspections begun today are a step in the right direction, but this government needs to make a serious commitment to a comprehensive solution. We need a permanent team in place for at least a year."

Sinclair said the plight of B.C. farmworkers should be on the minds and consciences of all British Columbians, now and in the future.

"We sit down to dinner every night over food grown and harvested by these workers. We need to know that they are being treated fairly. I don't want to get up one more morning to another story about farmworkers being killed."

Seat belts for locals

Charan Gill, long-time farmworker organizer and advocate, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Farmworkers' Union and founder of the Progressive Intercultural Services Society, attended the meeting, and he echoed Sinclair's tone of cautious optimism.

"It may happen this time," Gill told The Tyee. "I am a little hopeful today. The ministers seemed moved by what the family members told them, and appeared to be taking the matter seriously. We need to close the loophole in the Motor Vehicle Act and guarantee that every worker being moved by van has a seat belt."

The Motor Vehicle Act, Gill explained, allows farm labour contractors to register a van as a bus and thus avoid any legal responsibility to provide seat belts for all passengers. RCMP spokespeople today revealed that only two of the 17 passengers in the fatal van accident were wearing seat belts.

"This is a loophole," said Sinclair, "big enough to drive an unsafe van full of vulnerable workers through. The end result is people dying unnecessarily."

A tragedy foretold

The meeting with the ministers was held in the long and tragic shadow of the fatal van crash on March 7 that killed three farmworkers on the early morning highway near Abbotsford, and a storm of public attack against the current Liberal government for what critics portray as a politically motivated pattern of inadequate inspections and worker protection in the agriculture industry.

The government moved relatively swiftly to respond to such criticisms. On Monday, March 12, Solicitor General John Les announced that he had ordered stepped-up random checks on vehicles carrying farmworkers.

"When word gets out that there is stepped-up enforcement, I suspect there is going to be stepped-up compliance even without inspection in some cases," he told the CBC.

The next day, the B.C. Coroner's Service called for an inquest into the three highway deaths, citing public interest in the case as the cause for the swift move to establish an inquest.

Amarjit Kaur Bal, Sarabjit Kaur Sidhu and Sukhwinder Kaur Punia were killed when the overloaded van they rode in rolled and was left crushed and upside down on the highway. The other 14 passengers in the van (designed, RCMP told media, to carry 10) were all injured. The van-load of workers was being driven by one of the owners of the labour contracting firm RHA Enterprises of Chilliwack, and was bound for a day's work at Rainbow Greenhouses near the same valley community.

RCMP accident investigators told the CBC that wooden benches seemed to have been installed in the van to allow it to carry more passengers and that not all the workers in the death vehicle were wearing seatbelts when it rolled.

Protections pulled

A WorkSafeBC press release issued March 12 says that from 1983 to the end of 2006, 16 workers died while being transported in B.C. Between 2001 and 2005, 20 B.C. workers were killed in agriculture-related accidents and 183 were seriously injured. During that same time period, WorkSafeBC accepted nearly 3,700 claims. Nationally, the average annual death toll for agricultural workers is 115, with 1500 farmworkers seriously injured each year. Canadian Agricultural Safety Week is being celebrated this year from March 14-20.

Meanwhile, the NDP opposition has been hammering the government daily this week during question period on the issue of fair treatment and safety for farmworkers. They turned up the political heat yet further on March 14 with the introduction of a private members' bill authored by party labour critic Chuck Puckmayr. The bill, if passed by a legislature dominated by the governing Liberals, would restore to farmworkers basic employment standards protections that were removed after the Campbell government came to power in 2001.

"The BC Liberal government continues to treat farmworkers like second-class citizens, and farmworkers can't trust this government to stand up for them," said Puchmayr, the MLA for New Westminster. "New Democrats are proposing some concrete steps to address the ways in which the BC Liberal government has failed farmworkers."

In 2003, the Campbell government stripped farmworkers of many of their rights under the Employment Standards Act. The amendment to that act introduced by Puchmayr would restore overtime pay, statutory holiday pay and minimum wage protections for farmworkers, and would also introduce standards to protect children at work. Among other provisions, the bill would ensure that farmworkers are paid either the piece rate or the minimum wage, whichever is greatest.

Changes in piece rates brought in by the current government have created lower pay rates for pickers working some crops, according to a research document provided by the NDP official opposition, with the per pound rate for raspberries, for example, down from $0.338 in 2001 to $0.314 in 2006, while the amount paid for picking a pound of strawberries fell from $0.326 to $.0314 in the same time period.

"This bill will bring back basic rights for farm labourers and is the first step towards restoring some dignity to those who toil so hard in our fields," said Puchmayr.

Safeguards plowed under

The issue of proper treatment for the workers who grow and harvest B.C. crops has long been a contentious one. In 1925, when the provinces first passed a minimum wage act, farmworkers -- together with domestic help and cannery workers, two other work forces that were, like farmworkers, made up primarily of recent Asian immigrants and First Nations workers -- were explicitly excluded from this protection. It wasn't until the 1990s, under an NDP government, that WCB inspections and safety regulations as well as employment standards protections were extended to the province's farmworkers, and this only after a long period of public pressure organized by the Canadian Farmworkers' Union and its allies in organized labour.

However, even the minimal gains made by farmworkers in the 1990s were rolled back under the current government. As noted, the employment standards protections giving agricultural workers overtime pay and statutory holidays were removed in 2003. A preview of what was to come and a hint about the reasons for the changes came when then-minister of agriculture, food and fisheries John van Dongen told an Oct. 24, 2001, "Open Cabinet" event:

"First of all, we want less government. That will result in a more competitive industry.... A good example there is the kind of very complex employment standards and regulations we have that are choking industries like the raspberry industry."

Disappearing acts

In an undated memo produced in January 2002, cited in a B.C. Federation of Labour study, van Dongen and then-minister of skills development and labour Graham Bruce jointly agreed to direct employment standards compliance staff to reduce their enforcement activities in the fields during peak harvest periods.

Another pro-farmworker innovation from the 1990s that disappeared under the Liberals was a multi-agency enforcement drive known as the Agricultural Compliance Team, or ACT, which began its operations in 1997, eventually (after 1998) involved staff from the provincial employment standards branch, Human Resources Development Canada, and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.

During the 1999 harvest season, ACT identified 82 farm labour contractors operating without a license, suspended 78 contractor licences, issued 855 determinations that found employers in contravention of significant entitlements, collected $107,200 in penalties and recovered thousands of dollars in unpaid wages. As a side benefit, this robust enforcement scheme resulted in over $3.5 million in direct and indirect savings for the government.

'Business as usual'

Nonetheless, the program, unpopular with growers and labour contractors, has shrunk into inactivity under the Liberals say critics such as Mark Thompson. Thompson, an emeritus professor of industrial relations at UBC's Sauder School of Business, and one of the authors of B.C.'s employment standards legislation, told The Tyee in a recent phone interview that the growers and farm labour contractors "have a lot of political power."

"The whole business model in this industry is based on low wages, and the government is not fulfilling its responsibility for agricultural workers' safety or their basic rights," he said. "When the government shut down the ACT, they sent a message to growers and contractors that they could go back to business as usual."

In 2006, WorkSafeBC spokeswoman Donna Freeman told The Tyee in a March 15 phone interview that her agency, which she says is responsible for enforcing health and safety legislation in B.C. agriculture, conducted 237 inspections within the agricultural industry, and 91 "consultations," which can involve direct site visits or phone contact. The inspections led to the issuance of 301 "corrective orders." She said WorkSafeBC has only imposed one cash penalty for safety offences in B.C. agriculture in the past five years, a $69,000 dollar fine levied after a fatal accident involving an illegally over-loaded van full of farmworkers.

Gordon Williams, a spokesman for the provincial Ministry of Labour and Citizens' Services told The Tyee that his ministry also does site inspections on B.C. farms, but emphasized that the mandate of such inspections does not include safety issues. In 2006, he said, his ministry conducted 82 unannounced site inspections on B.C. farms and dealt with only 27 complaints related to employment standards issues. Williams attributed the demise of the multi-agency ACT inspection process to a gradual withdrawal of federal participation in the new millennium.

"ACT sort of tapered off as the feds withdrew from the program, he told The Tyee. "I understand this decision, taken in Ottawa, reflects their process and priorities."

Last call for the coroner?

For Raj Chouhan, the first priority in this situation is the safety and well-being of B.C.'s farmworkers. Chouhan, now an NDP MLA and formerly an officer and organizer with the Canadian Farmworkers' Union, told The Tyee he was pleased to hear Liberal ministers after the morning meeting tell the press they had given the submission from the surviving families and the B.C. Fed careful consideration and that they would take appropriate action.

"It all depends, though, on what they mean by 'appropriate, '" he told The Tyee. "They had coroner's recommendations that would have prevented these deaths after the accident four years ago. They sat on those recommendations for years. I hope this time they'll act quickly and implement all the suggestions they received today."

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