In 2007 three farm workers died in a crash, now the focus of an inquest some hope will expose wider abuses.
The 1998 Dodge van rests upside down on a gray concrete divider that matches the colour of the sky. Its body is crumpled and torn like a piece of paper. Four wheels point into the falling rain. Human belongings lay scattered near bodies covered in yellow tarp. White running shoes. Fabric lunchboxes. A red thermos. Three East Indian farm women died on March 7, 2007. Thirteen plus the driver were seriously injured.
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As video taken after the crash was played in a Burnaby coroners courtroom, Harsharan Bal put his turbaned head close to his knees. His mother's life ended that day, in darkness and pouring rain, on a concrete overpass between Abbotsford and Chilliwack. "I feel so low," he told reporters later. "My mother is never going to come back."
Today was the first session of a coroners inquest into one of the deadliest farm worker crashes of recent years. During the next two weeks, a five person jury will hear testimony from over a dozen people intimately connected to the accident -- everyone from family members to crash experts.
The ultimate goal is to issue recommendations that will improve driving safety across the province. But many participants want the inquest to stand for more. They see the crash as a potent flashpoint, symbolic of the wide-scale mistreatment of B.C.'s immigrant farm workers.
"They are not considered as human beings," said Charan Gill of the Canadian Farmworkers Union. "They are treated as cattle."
'It was an awful sight'
For years, Harwinder Gill and her husband Ranjit ran a modest transport company. It was under contract to bring workers to Rainbow Greenhouses in Chilliwack. At 5:30 a.m. on the day of the crash, Harwinder picked up the first woman of the day.
Manjinder Kaur Dhillon climbed into the front and buckled her seat belt. Ranjit had bought the van from an RCMP auction two years earlier. It had been used to transport prisoners in northern Alberta. Police removed all the rear seatbelts to keep convicts from strangling each other. Ranjit and Harwinder never replaced them. They also left metal prisoner bars on one of the windows.
By 6:00 a.m., 17 women were squeezed into a 15-passenger van. Several were squished on makeshift plywood seats. They sat on bare wood, with nails protruding. The smallest signs of dawn were appearing on the horizon as the van sped east down Highway 1. Near-torrential rain covered the road in puddles and made it extremely hard to see. All the weight piled in the back lightened the front of the vehicle, a problem exacerbated by low tire pressure. It's unclear exactly how Harwinder lost control. Suddenly, the driver's side of the van struck the front corner of a red tandem truck. A giant salvage hauler rammed into the back of the van.
The farm workers barely had time to think. They hit the divider and flipped. The collision flung several of them onto the road. Metres behind, Jessie Van Rikxoort saw a flash of headlights, then slammed on his brakes. He screeched to a halt one car length in front of the van. He got out to see what had happened. "It was an awful sight," the carpenter told the inquest. "Others couldn't even bear to look at it."
'I hope people start accepting responsibility'
Last year, van driver Harwinder was fined $2,000 after pleading guilty to unqualified driving with an improper licence. An investigation by WorkSafe B.C. led to a nearly $70,000 fine for the Gills' company, RHA Enterprises Ltd. Harwinder admitted under questioning today she wasn't trained to operate a 15-passenger van under adverse weather conditions. She denied purposely overcrowding the vehicle. It was hard to keep track of who was getting in and out, she argued. Harwinder also deflected previous witness statements that suggested earlier trips to the Fraser Valley were so crowded people had to stand or sit on the floor. She told the court she began taking medicine for depression after the crash.
New Democratic Party MLA Raj Chouhan accused Harwinder of deflecting blame during a break in the proceedings. "We have heard these kinds of statements before," he said. "I hope people start accepting responsibility rather than denying these farm workers produce food for everybody but they are sent to work in very unsafe conditions."
About a week before the accident, a WorkSafe B.C. inspector visited Rainbow Greenhouses and spoke with a driver employed by the Gills. Every passenger needs a seatbelt, vans must not be overcrowded and drivers must do regular inspections, the safety rep ordered. Reports were given to the greenhouse and the driver. Harwinder denied ever receiving one.
Later on, testimony from RCMP Cst. Vince Chand revealed the Gills had obtained what was in effect a fabricated commercial vehicle inspection from a metro Vancouver auto shop. The owner of that business has since had his license revoked, but no criminal charges were laid.
Such negligence is widespread across B.C.'s agriculture industry, where unscrupulous transport companies cash in by disregarding the rules, Charan Gill said.
"Contractors like this work on a commission basis," he told The Tyee. "That's why they crowd the vans. More workers means more pay for them."
Harsharan Bal wasn't looking for blame today. With a quivering upper lip, he told reporters he's got nothing against the Gills, even in light of Harwinder's testimony. He just wants some good to come from his mother's death. "We hope labour workers should be treated as human beings," he said in halting English. "We are here for the future."
'They Are Treated as Cattle' (http://thetyee.ca/News/2009/12/08/TreatedAsCattle/)
- Economic sectors
Agriculture and horticulture workers
- Content types
Documented cases of abuse
- Target groups
- Geographical focuses