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Farmworker Safeguards Stalled Say Critics

A month after deadly crash, still waiting for reforms.

Tom Sandborn 9 Apr

Tom Sandborn reports for The Tyee with a special focus on labour and health policy issues.

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Peak harvest approaching

Labour leaders and community activists who met with B.C. Liberal ministers nearly four weeks ago to improve safety for farmworkers say the government is not moving fast enough.

At the March 15 meeting, ministers were presented a comprehensive plan for reforms designed to prevent further farmworker deaths on the highway and bring farmworkers under the provisions of the Employment Standards legislation.

"The peak harvesting season will beginning in June," long-time farmworker advocate and organizer Charan Gill told The Tyee. "The changes need to come in soon to insure that workers' lives are safe."

In a letter addressed to Agriculture Minister Pat Bell dated March 23, Gill wrote:

I feel the following things need to happen immediately:

1. Reinstate the rights of the farm workers, which were taken away by the Ministry of Labour in 2003.

2. Checks made by Employment Standards to ensure labour contractors and growers do not convert piece rate into hourly rate. In this approach, many things can be corrected by accurately reflecting real wages of farm workers and under the table cash transactions can easily be stopped.

3. The vegetable industry has to be streamlined, one way or another, as I personally have known for 30 years that no one pays an hourly rate in this industry. Also, there should be some consistency for all vegetable piece rates or hourly rates and those discrepancies and loopholes should be closed by this Ministry, which is responsible for regulating the rates.

4. The spot checks must be maintained and the Inter-Agency Team should be reactivated soon so that your government will send a message out to all stakeholders that the farm workers deaths will not be forgotten. Also, that this team will continue checking farms on an ongoing and regular basis."

Gill explained to The Tyee that his point number two, "convert piece rate to an hourly rate," refers to a common practice in B.C. agriculture, which sees labour contractors under-report the number of hours their employees work in order to distort the record and hide the lower than minimum wage rates actually being paid.

Minister takes issue 'very seriously'

A spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Pat Bell told The Tyee that Gill's letter was not within the mandate of the Agriculture Minister, and that the correspondence had been forwarded to the office of Minister of Labour Olga Illich.

Barbara Wright, who speaks for the Labour Ministry, declined to tell The Tyee whether the minister had replied yet to Gill's suggestions. Wright did note, however, that Minister Illich had referred to the letter in a Legislative Assembly debate on March 29. The minister said, in response to a question from Burnaby Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan, who was himself an officer in the Canadian Farmworkers Union from 1979 until 1986:

"As a matter of fact, we do take the issue that was raised by the farmworkers very seriously, and we have already instituted a number of steps. As the members opposite know, the farm vehicle inspections started very quickly. We actually have a letter here from Charan Gill saying: 'I am pleased to note your government has taken quick action and has started to enforce the rules and regulations.'"

The minister did not quote the portions of Gill's letter that called for further specific reforms.

Ministers Illich and Bell both attended the March 15 meeting where they received a report much more extensive than Gill's letter, carrying 29 recommendations by the B.C. Federation of Labour based largely on previous recommendations by the Workers Compensation Board and the Coroners Service, with further input from the RCMP and other experts.

Restored rights sought

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, says he is worried the government will "cherry pick a few items from our brief and leave vital reforms undone."

Excluded from basic protections under the Workers Compensation Act and minimum wage legislation for most of the 20th century, farmworkers have seen a brief period of robust safety inspections of worker transport vehicles by a multi-government task force (the Agricultural Compliance Team) disappear in the early years of this decade, and saw many of their protections under Employment Standards legislation removed in 2003.

The March 7 deaths of three women hurled out of a labour contractor's van as the overloaded and under-equipped vehicle spun out of control and rolled on Highway 1 near Chilliwack have spurred calls for change.

"The government can't just do some highway enforcement in the wake of the tragic deaths," Sinclair told The Tyee. "We need a comprehensive approach that includes not only van safety but, just as important, restores the rights this government stripped away from farmworkers in 2003. The government's concern for farmworkers shouldn't stop at the farm gate."

Surviving family members of the recent accident victims have joined labour leaders and the NDP opposition in demanding tougher enforcement of safety regulations and restored coverage for farmworkers under Employment Standards legislation. Excluding farmworkers from employment standards protections, they argue, is not only unfair in itself, but also sends a message that farmworkers are second class workers, a message that contributes to employer and labour contractor carelessness with worker safety.

"I don't believe the people of B.C. want farmworkers treated as second class citizens," Sinclair said.

'We will do more'

Speaking for Labour Minister Illich, Wright assured The Tyee that Illich and Agriculture Minister Bell are closely attentive to farmworker health and safety, including measures that might prevent more fatalities on the roads.

"The ministers are looking at these matters, and they are a priority. However, we're not going to rush. We have already taken steps such as highway enforcement, and we will do more. It is important, however, to do it effectively as well as swiftly," said Wright.

Chuck Puchmayr, NDP labour critic and MLA from New Westminster, says the B.C. Liberal government has a poor track record.

"Look at the Sunar case in 2003," he said. "The B.C. Coroner's Service investigated the death in a farmwork van crash then," he said. "In her final report, the coroner made several recommendations to keep these workers safe, and to keep this kind of tragic accident from happening again."

"For more than three years, the B.C. Liberal government ignored those recommendations, prompting the Opposition to introduce this legislation and bring these critical measures into force," said Puchmayr.

Puchmayr recently proposed two pieces of legislation to address issues of farmworker safety and employment standards protections (this bill and this one).

More violations claimed

Asked by The Tyee for details on the recent spate of highway enforcement activity in some agricultural areas of B.C., the Ministry of Transportation did not respond before this story was filed.

Charan Gill told The Tyee that at least three vans in violation of safety regulations were taken off the road last week, at least one being driven at an illegal speed by a labour contractor without the proper driver's licence. Once stopped, Gill told the Tyee, the van was discovered to lack seat belts for its passengers.

"Labour contractors just aren't getting the message," Gill said. "We are demanding a public inquiry so we can really assess the facts, especially in the hand harvest industry. Contractors are taking over two dollars an hour from workers in trade for transporting them to the fields. Under the current system, workers are totally dependent on contractors. We need to see serious reforms and we need them to be in place soon."

"This isn't rocket science," said Sinclair, "and could be done in days."

He stressed that whatever the government proposes will draw close scrutiny. "We all need to ask: is the government committing the staff and resources necessary to make their response effective?"

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