The Fight For Safe Working Conditions in BC
Nine Farm Workers Injured in School Bus Rollover in Abbotsford
BC farm workers in the Fraser Valley, most of whom are immigrant workers or temporary foreign workers, face working conditions that are in many cases dangerous and unacceptable. Typically workers are driven daily to and from farms in vans or buses.
On August 31, a school bus carrying 36 workers overturned in a ditch in Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley. The accident injured nine farm workers, three of whom were transported to hospital by ambulance.
This is not the first incident of its kind. Three women farm workers — Amarjit Kaur Bal, Sukhvinder Kaur Punia, and Sarbjit Kaur Sidhu — were killed March 7, 2007, in a crash on Highway 1, again in the Fraser Valley. The women were travelling to a farm site in a van with 14 others when they tragically lost their lives. An investigation discovered the over-packed van had only two seat belts, inadequate tires and a fraudulent safety permit. The driver did not have the proper licence.
In another serious incident of a different kind, three farm workers were killed and two others left with irreversible brain damage in 2008, when hydrogen sulfide gas was released from a pipe in a composting facility pump house on a mushroom farm in Langley, also in the Fraser Valley.
As part of the now three-decade-long anti-social offensive, the former Liberal government in BC rescinded many regulations enforcing inspections of farms and farm vehicles, making a bad situation for farm workers even worse. For example, legislation was passed in 2003 excluding farm workers from regulations governing hours of work, overtime and statutory holiday pay. One consequence is that some drivers transporting workers to and from farms have not had adequate sleep to operate the vehicles safely.
The BC Federation of Labour pointed out in 2018 that some of the most critical recommendations of the 2009 Coroner’s Inquest into the 2007 traffic accident that killed three farm workers had been ignored.
Among the recommendations not implemented are:
– Classifying 15-passenger vans as “high risk vehicles.”
– Mandatory annual inspections by a government-employed inspector for all 15-passenger vans.
– Educating farm workers about their rights and responsibilities under the BC Workers Compensation Act.
– Making business owners responsible for the safety compliance of the labour contractors they hire.
Also ignored was the recommendation that sought to ensure vehicle inspection sites are separate from maintenance and repair facilities. The Inquest recognized the practice of having the same site for both maintenance and inspections was a significant conflict of interest that led to false vehicle safety certifications such as in the deadly crash in 2007.
Not implemented as well was the recommendation to sustain random roadside and onsite inspection of commercial vehicles. Inspections actually decreased by 80 per cent between 2007 and 2018 even though in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 tragedy, 35 per cent of vans inspected in an inter-agency blitz were immediately impounded as being unsafe to drive.
The fight for humane and safe working conditions for farm workers, including transportation to and from farms, is ongoing and a matter of concern for all workers.