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Farm Workers' Deaths: A Tragedy Foretold

BC Libs long criticized for gutting worker safety.

David Beers 8 Mar 2007TheTyee.ca

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

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Wednesday's road accident that killed three farm workers and left several others clinging to life was the result of the B.C. Liberal government's long skid away from regulating worker safety. That was the message immediately coming from farm worker advocates, members of the B.C. Federation of Labour and New Democrat politicians.

They pointed out that 17 people were crammed into a van designed for 10, a vehicle with wooden benches rather than seats. Passengers weren't wearing seat belts according to the RCMP.

It's not yet known just how the crash occurred. And in the legislature Wednesday, B.C. Liberals were quick to denounce New Democrats for trying to "score political points" over the tragedy. But the current government has a record of loosening worker safety that leaves it wide open to criticism.

As the CBC reports: "In 2001, the newly elected Liberal government did away with a program that routinely inspected the vans. Since then, four people have died and more than 30 have been injured in accidents involving the transportation of farm workers in B.C."

In March of 2004 The Tyee published a special report titled "Ripe for Abuse" that detailed how, their ranks slashed, only three officers were investigating abuse against the 6,000 Indo-Canadian seniors picking fruit across the Lower Mainland. It was left largely up to employers to guarantee they were complying with payment and safety laws.

Graeme Moore, a former industrial relations officer who went on to release a study for the B.C. Federation of Labour, accused the government of neglect.

As the Tyee report explained: "At the local Sikh temple, or through relatives, new immigrants hear about fellow Indo-Canadian labour contractors -- middle men often accused of tax fraud, employment insurance scams and withholding wages until months after the harvest.

"Unable to choose who they work for, they're taken to fields across Surrey, Delta, Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack in vans that sometimes lack seatbelts, exceed capacity and fail safety standards. Last July, a van carrying 19 blew a tire and crashed on the Trans Canada highway, killing the driver and injuring 18 workers. In November, nine were injured when a van with only two seatbelts for its 14 occupants collided with a truck near Abbotsford."

In November of 2005 labour economist David Fairey released a report through the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives detailing how "sweeping changes to the employment standards have dramatically undermined the province's ability to enforce minimum protections for workers."

Yesterday, Angela Schira of the B.C. Federation of Labour said: "If we just leave things to allow people to self-regulate, this is what happens."

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