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Hard Thanksgiving for Injured Farm Workers

BC pickers were hurt while riding unprotected with produce bound for holiday tables -- adding to history of carnage.

Tom Sandborn 11 Oct

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health care issues for The Tyee. He welcomes story tips and feedback here.

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Greenway Farms boxes from stuck truck ended up in wet ditch with workers.

When B.C. residents sit down this weekend to their Thanksgiving dinners, few will pause to think about those who pulled the vegetables from the fields, or to give thanks that we don't have to live with the dangerous working conditions and government neglect that can turn the lives of farm workers into a long harvest of heartbreak and injustice.

That's how it looks to trade unionists and worker advocates, who say that B.C.'s farm workers are still not adequately protected from exploitation and unnecessary workplace injuries.

A multiple injury traffic accident near Surrey last week suggests that the critics might be right.

While we feast, a group of workers from the Greenway Farms are recovering from injuries incurred on the evening of Oct. 5, when a pickup truck (allegedly driven by an impaired driver) struck the flat bed trailer they were riding, scattering the workers and the cardboard boxes of produce they were sitting on into a roadside ditch. On Oct. 7, one of the injured workers was reportedly still in hospital with serious injuries.

So, just to be clear, the workers had no safety belts or other safety equipment to protect them as they rode down a public road on top of a pile of boxes, with little to no lighting visible on the flat deck trailer, and any lights on the tractor obscured by the load on the trailer.

"We are lucky we aren't looking at a mass funeral this weekend," said Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour.

"British Columbians don't want to sit down at the table and see farmworkers' blood on their plates," Sinclair told The Tyee. "What this incident shows us is that, despite all the breast beating in Victoria about worker safety, we have a government that is sending the employers in agriculture the message that they can get away with treating their workers as second class citizens."

No charges for Greenway Farms: Mounties

A civilian employee of the RCMP's Surrey detachment told The Tyee on Oct. 7 that charges of impaired driving were being considered against the pickup driver, but no charges were being contemplated against the farm that employed the injured workers or the driver of the tractor that was towing them and boxes of produce down a darkened 168th Street that night.

WorkSafeBC regulations have this to say about the responsibility of employers regarding transport of farm workers:

"If workers are to travel in a worker transportation vehicle, the employer must ensure that (a) reasonable measures are taken to evaluate road, weather and traffic conditions to ensure the safe transit of the workers,

(b) an inspection of the worker transportation vehicle has been conducted by a qualified person before first use on a work shift, and

(c) any defect which might affect the safety of workers is corrected before the vehicle is used."

WorkSafeBC, The Tyee was reminded by its spokeswoman Donna Freeman, cannot lay criminal charges. It can investigate, levy fines and recommend that the Crown lay charges.

‘How many more have to be killed?'

The employer of the workers injured on Oct. 5, Greenway Farms, was the site of a fight to unionize B.C. farm workers over the past two years. In 2008, workers at the farm, including a large contingent of foreign workers brought to B.C. under a federal temporary work program, voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada, in what was hailed as a landmark victory for unionization in Canada's farm sector.

The following year, after Greenway owners reportedly did not rehire most of the temporary workers who had voted to join the union and recruited a workforce of more compliant local workers, farm management was successful in winning a decertification vote that removed the union from the farm.

Greenway Farm management did not respond to Tyee requests for comment on this story.

"The way the system is working now, cattle are trucked more safely than agriculture workers. How many more workers have to be killed or injured before the authorities in British Columbia, and Alberta and Ontario stop treating agriculture workers like disposable commodities, and start ensuring that the health and safety of the workers who put food on our tables is properly protected?" asks Wayne Hanley, the national president of the UFCW, which in cooperation with the Agriculture Workers Alliance, operates farm worker support centres in Abbotsford, Kelowna and Surrey, B.C., as well as other help centres across Canada.

Hanley said that the B.C. government refused to implement most of the recommendations made by a coroner's jury that investigated the 2007 accident that killed three and injured fourteen workers outside Abbotsford.

Unions, ministry at odds over safety requirements

The BC Federation of Labour has also criticized the Campbell Liberals for failing to respond adequately to the coroner's jury suggestions, saying this April that: "The government rejected a crucial jury recommendation that said the person who repairs a farm van should not also be in charge of doing safety inspections on that vehicle... The RCMP called for the same change, but government rejected this important recommendation."

In a point by point response to the recommendations of the coroner's jury posted on the website of the Ministry of Labour, the government says that it has adopted "alternative action" on the inspection/repair issue because of concerns that private sector garages, if not allowed to both conduct inspections on farm vehicles and repair them, would opt out of the inspection business.

B.C.'s Labour Minister Murray Coell disagrees with union criticisms of his government's track record on farm worker safety.

"B.C.'s agriculture employment standards are backed by some of the highest penalties in the country. We will continue to target safety inspections and educate farm workers, employers and van operators about their rights and responsibilities," the minister told The Tyee via email.

Coell also rejects union claims that his government failed to respond properly to the recommendation of the coroner's jury that looked into the 2007 deaths.

Worker transport inspection to be beefed up: Coell

This is not the first time that the agriculture sector in B.C. has seen casualties, and critics say the government is not doing enough to end the farm-related carnage in the fields and on the roads of the province.

After they came to power in 2001, the Campbell Liberals cut a program that did safety inspections on vehicles used to transport farm workers. Six years later, lax or nonexistent safety regulations in the sector had led, critics say, to at least four deaths and 30 injuries in farm worker transport, including the nightmare crash on Highway 1 outside Abbotsford in 2007 that killed three workers and injured 14.

The van involved in the fatal accident had 17 workers crammed into a vehicle designed for 10, with wooden benches without seatbelts having been installed to up its capacity. A $2,000 fine was imposed on the driver of the van, but despite the fact that RCMP recommended 33 criminal charges in this case, none were laid.

Donna Freeman, who speaks for WorkSafeBC, told The Tyee that her organization had already been implementing the changes of practice recommended for it when the coroner's jury delivered its assessment last year of the fatal 2007 crash on Highway 1.

According to Labour Minister Coell, the province "responded to each recommendation that was within the scope of the province. We'll be asking police agencies to report regularly on random checks of 15-passenger vans. And we have introduced legislative changes to the Motor Vehicle Act that will improve monitoring and enforcement of both facilities and inspectors. This gives government staff the authority to enter inspection facilities to conduct inspections of the vehicles."

Freeman told The Tyee that her agency conducts extensive inspections of workplace conditions and van safety in the agriculture sector. She said that WorkSafe conducted 951 inspections on farms and at roadside in 2009, 605 in 2008 and 805 in 2007. She was unable, by the time this story was filed, to tell us how many of these were roadside van inspections and how many represented farm visits.

She did say, however, that 13 days of roadside inspections of farm worker transport vans were planned for the 2010 season. These are multiple agency operations involving WorkSafe, the RCMP, Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement and the Employment Standards Branch.

Inspections rare: farm worker organizer

Lucy Luna is a worker advocate and organizer at the Agricultural Workers Alliance storefront in Abbotsford. She told The Tyee that she talks to farm workers every day, and no one she meets reports a van or trailer being stopped for safety inspection.

Workers at Greenway Farms tell her that riding on an open trailer with no safety belts, perched precariously atop piles of boxed produce, is a regular occurrence for them at the farm.

"I feel so bad for all the workers," Luna said. "If we still had a union contract at that farm, there would have been a safety committee and this accident wouldn't have happened. This is a sad story that will continue until farm workers have a union to protect them."

Andy Neufeld, who speaks for the UFCW in B.C., says that this latest accident in the farm sector shows that the government has no respect migrant workers.

"The terrible tragedy in 2007 killed three and maimed others. Three years later, we have a similar situation. The farm owners have no fear under this government of being held to account. The BC Liberals have devastated employment standards and protections for workers and the obligations of employers."  [Tyee]

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