Cut the politicking and concentrate on protecting farm workers
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Critics of the provincial government have seized on the tragic death last week of three farm workers as evidence that the Liberals have abandoned a vulnerable group of workers.
Some of the complaints carry a whiff of odious opportunism and wild statements are flying, including the unproven allegation by the B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair that the three women died because they were not wearing seatbelts. The accident is still under investigation and until the details are known, everyone should avoid undue speculation about what happened on the road.
That said, we are encouraged to see that the province has announced it will start making more spot checks of labour contractors' vehicles.
But this is not the first accident involving an overloaded van carrying farm workers and the facts that have already emerged raise serious questions that transcend the details of this incident.
This much we know: The van that ended up on its roof on a concrete barrier on the Trans-Canada Highway was carrying 17 people. It was licensed to carry 15.
The women were working for the company that owned the van, a farm labour contractor. The van had recently passed a required inspection.
The owner of the van, RHA Enterprises, has been convicted previously of infractions against the Employment Standards Act, including operating without a licence, failing to keep proper records and failing to register a vehicle. RHA Enterprises was fined $500 for each violation.
The people hired by farm labour contractors are usually immigrants. They are often older workers who speak little or no English. Their choice appears to be to accept whatever conditions they are offered or not to work at all.
In 2003, the government amended the Labour Standards Act to give farmers more flexibility. It excluded farm workers from many of the provisions covering hours of work and holidays. It also reduced by a third the number of inspectors who investigate potential labour standards violations, closed 10 of 19 local offices and moved to a system that is based primarily on complaints rather than prevention.
The streamlined system was backed up by a system of escalating fines, which was supposed to provide a deterrent to any unscrupulous employer tempted to take advantage of the flexible regulatory environment. But an access to information search by The Vancouver Sun last year found that, in most cases, only the minimum fine of $500 was being assessed, even for repeat offenders.
Coming back to the recent van accident itself, the use of seatbelts may be an issue. It's not clear they were required for the driver and all 16 passengers. Looking at the pictures of the accident scene, however, it's certainly not obvious that they would have saved lives even if they had been used.
There appears to be a conflict between WorkSafe BC regulations and the Highway Traffic Act regarding the use of seatbelts that needs to be clarified.
But it's also time for a wider investigation of the treatment of agricultural workers in the province.
This is needed not just because this accident has focused attention on the issues around labour contractors, but because we are increasingly turning to the use of temporary foreign workers to work on B.C. farms.
Such workers bring a whole new set of issues, not the least of which is their vulnerability to abuse.
Agriculture is a key industry in B.C. We need to ensure we have a regulatory environment that encourages productivity, but also one that ensures farm workers enjoy the fruits of their labour under safe working conditions.
migrant workers, accident, safety, standards
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Policy analysis and Documented cases of abuse
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