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Eight years after crash of van carrying farmworkers, struggle for safety continues

Farmworkers vehicles failing inspections at rising rates, but officials say operators have dramatically improved.
Tow truck was used to lift van so emerg crews could free passengers
The 2007 crash of a van transporting farmworkers killed three people and sparked a push for safety that continues to this day.

Although officials and advocates both say the safety of farmworkers' vehicles has improved dramatically since a 2007 crash in Abbotsford killed three women, statistics show the number of vehicles cited for mechanical problems has steadily increased in recent years.

Between 2008 and 2013, the rate at which vehicles transporting farmworkers failed roadside inspections by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement (CVSE) Agency more than doubled. A similar increase was seen in the rate at which Worksafe BC found vehicles to have "serious mechanical difficulties."

Behind the numbers, though, there are stories of success, with inspectors reporting a dramatic change in the way labour contractors bring workers to and from the many Fraser Valley farms that rely on them to produce the region's agricultural bounty.

Tragedy strikes

The rain was sluicing down the morning of March 7, 2007, as the nine-year-old Dodge Ram 350 van and its 17 occupants – all farmworkers save the driver – bore down Highway 1 en route to a farm in Chilliwack.

It was just after 6 a.m. and the highway would have gleamed with the red reflections of commuters’ taillights.

None of the passengers packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the van would have had any warning of what was about to occur as the van crossed Sumas Way on the overpass. The tires strayed right, towards the guardrail. The driver turned the wheel, the van veered left, and steel, concrete and glass exploded.

Years later, that crash is on the mind of Jagjeet Sidhu, as he sits in his Abbotsford house beneath photos of his two daughters and son, now aged 15, 11 and nine.

Sidhu’s 31-year-old wife, Sarbjit Kaur Sidhu, was one of three women who died that rainy morning. Also killed were Amarjit Bal, 52, and Sukhvinder Kaur Punia, 46. Fourteen others were injured.

The crash caused the provincial government to clamp down on the transportation of farmworkers by labour contractors.

Conditions quickly improved, and a subsequent coroner’s inquest in 2009 produced 18 recommendations to better improve safety for farmworkers. But five years after that inquest, many vehicles continue to be cited for mechanical difficulties by Worksafe BC and fail inspections by the CVSE.

Offenders remain

On June 25, 2014, a steady stream of vans and buses made their way to a CVSE inspection site at the Emil Anderson yard on Sumas Way, not far from the 2007 crash site.

The vehicles had been stopped on roads around the Fraser Valley as part of random roadside monitoring of farmworkers’ vehicles conducted by an interagency task force launched soon after the crash.

On this June morning, Worksafe BC inspectors would issue compliance orders to the operators of several of those vehicles. Two were in such shoddy shape, they were pulled from the road, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

One was a 1996 Ford Econo Wagon Van operated by a fruit farm that carried three workers. Among other problems, the van’s ball joints showed excessive movement, tires were cracked and worn, glass in a right side door was missing and the vehicle’s rear brake lines were rusty. The van also had no first aid equipment.

The other was a 2005 GMC Bus loaded with 16 workers and operated by a labour contractor. Its tires and shocks were worn, its axle was rusting and its front brake rotors were scored. The parking brake didn’t work, the exhaust leaked, a fire extinguisher was unsecured, and it too had no first aid kit.

While many vehicles inspected that day drew no censure from Worksafe BC or the CVSE, others drew a range of Worksafe compliance orders.

The stop was an “interagency roadside check.” Such inspections – which take place around a dozen times a year, mostly in the Lower Mainland – began in 2007 after the crash. Immediate results showed the scale of the problem facing regulators, with 30 per cent of inspected vehicles failing inspection by the CVSE. One in five vehicles were found by Worksafe BC to have “serious mechanical difficulties.”

The blitz seemed to have worked, and violations had dropped substantially by 2008, with just 8.5 per cent of vehicles transporting farmworkers failing CVSE inspection or found by Worksafe BC to have serious mechanical difficulties.

But as the inspections have continued, officials have reported a rise in the rate at which vehicles fail roadside CVSE inspections or are cited by Worksafe BC for mechanical problems.

In 2013, one in five such vehicles inspected by the CVSE failed. The same ratio was cited by Worksafe BC for exhibiting serious mechanical difficulties. CVSE numbers improved in 2014, dropping from 19.8 per cent to 13.7 per cent, but that was the first time compliance numbers have improved over the previous year since 2008.

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Steve Haywood, the acting director of CVSE, said many of those vehicles that failed in 2012 and 2013 – the worst year for failures – were cited for having a driver with the wrong licence or for loose equipment. He said the agency relayed these problems to operators, which he said likely led to better statistics in 2014.

Haywood said conditions are markedly better today than prior to the crash and that operators have responded to the inspections.

“They push each other now. They realize one [offender] is going to give them all a bad name,” he said. “It’s an industry that has definitely had a complete turnaround.”

While violations do continue, Haywood say they aren’t nearly as serious as those from 2007.

Similarly, Worksafe BC occupational safety officer Sandeep Mangat said the increasing number of vehicles cited for mechanical difficulties reflects inspectors’ higher standards. A citation for “mechanical difficulties” can mean a faulty door handle, a signal light that doesn’t work, or even a lack of rubber on a brake pedal.

Charnjit Johal, who has operated JKJ Contracting, a company licensed for 40 labourers, likes the stricter standards. Driving a 21-seat Handydart-like bus and a 15-passenger van, Johal said that when she set up her company 15 years ago, “nobody cared” how workers were transported or if there were enough seatbelts for passengers. These days, she said “everybody is more careful” because of the inspections.

“Lots of things have changed, and I’m happy for that. I love it.”

Fewer inspections reported

There are reportedly 30,000 people employed in agriculture in British Columbia, but just 124 vehicles were inspected in roadside checks conducted by the CVSE BC in 2014.

While around a dozen such inspection days are held every year, the number of vehicles inspected has decreased.

A total of 265 vehicles went through checks in 2010. The number has fallen steadily since then, with just 124 vehicles inspected in 2014.

Haywood believes the decreasing number of vehicle inspections is due to a reduced number of contractors providing transportation and more workers driving or car-pooling.

But Gurpreet Pabla, a legal advocate with the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society and a member of the Agriculture Workers Alliance Commission, a joint operation with Abbotsford Community Services, worries that authorities are still missing vehicles.

“We don’t think even 10 per cent of the vehicles are being inspected,” said Pabla.

Pabla is concerned that if enforcement activities decrease, contractors’ safety standards will start to slip.

Although Worksafe BC officials don’t think they’re missing many vehicles, they agree that safety could be jeopardized if the number of inspections decreases.

“In the years we had a little dip, the violations started to increase again,” Mangat said. His boss, Worksafe BC regional prevention manager Mike Nielsen, added: “We have to maintain our vigilence.”

Union officials also say that several of the 18 recommendations made in the coroner’s inquest were not fully implemented, including mandatory inspections of all 15-seat passenger vans by a government inspector.

The provincial government says “alternative action” has been taken to improve safety, and requires regular inspections by government-authorized facilities.

'It should not happen again'

The issue continues to animate Jagjeet Sidhu’s life.

Last weekend, on the eighth anniversary of the crash, he and the relatives of the other victims gathered alongside union leaders and community activists for a vigil in the International Friendship Garden, where a 22-foot-tall “golden tree” will one day stand. The memorial is meant to honour those farmworkers killed or injured on the job, including Sidhu’s wife.

At the 2009 coroner’s inquest, Sidhu and the families of the other crash victims heard that the over-capacity van that carried their loved ones had just two seatbelts. One seat consisted of a simple wooden bench and the van’s tires were in poor condition and not properly inflated.

While no criminal charges were laid, the van’s driver, Harwinder Gill, would later plead guilty to driving without reasonable consideration and without a proper licence. Gill, who operated the contracting company that owned the vehicle with her husband Ranjit, was ordered to pay $2,000 and given a one-year driving prohibition. Worksafe BC later fined the company $69,801, but the BC Federation of Labour says the money was never paid.

Since the inquest, Sidhu has stayed involved in the push for better safety for farmworkers. It hasn’t been easy, he says, especially when he could be spending the time with his children.

There had been other crashes prior to that which killed his wife, but none created enough of a stir to resolve the problems in the industry. Now, he talks about a something akin to an obligation to use his own family’s experience to prevent further tragedies.

“I have suffered the loss,” he says, through an interpreter. “It should not happen again to somebody else’s family.

“If somebody had done this before this incident, maybe this incident would never have happened … Maybe if I do it now, somebody’s life would be saved.”