Tragedy revisited: Vigil held for three Abbotsford farm workers killed in 2007

Worrying vehicle-inspection data shows lessons may not have been learned

A tragedy, which left three Abbotsford mothers dead 13 years ago, will be revisited at the Matsqui Auditorium this afternoon.

The families of the three agricultural workers – who were killed on March 7, 2007, commuting to work on Highway 1 – will be joined by community organizers, union members and political representatives at a 12:30 p.m. vigil, hosted by the BC Federation of Labour.

Armajit Kaur Bal, 52, Sukhvinder Kaur Punia, 46, and Sarbjit Kaur Sidhu, 31, all lost their lives in the accident. A 22-foot monument in the form of a golden tree was unveiled in 2015, and serves as a reminder of the tragedy.

RELATED: Golden Tree monument unveiled in Friendship Garden

“This vigil commemorates the women who lost their lives and honours the thousands of farm workers that work under difficult conditions every day—planting, nurturing, harvesting and processing the food that sustains our communities and economy,” said Laird Cronk, President of the BCFED.

Several investigations into the accident found their employer was at fault. The employer’s vehicle, a van with a capacity for 15 passengers was illegally overloaded, only equipped with two seat-belts, had faulty tires installed, an illegitimate permit and was being driven by someone without the proper licence.

“Concrete action is needed now to improve the working conditions for farm workers and to hold negligent employers accountable when they put farm workers in harms way” Cronk said. “This is the legacy that we owe to the families of three women who lost their lives.”

A 2009 provincial Coroner’s Inquest into the death led to 18 jury recommendations to improve safety in the agricultural industry.These recommendations included: vehicle inspection sites separate from maintenance and repair facilities, as this was seen as a conflict of interest; the classification of 15-person passenger vans as high-risk vehicles; mandatory annual inspections by government officials, as a conflict was again seen with the use of private inspectors; education for farm workers on their labour rights; and ensuring businesses share responsibility for the safety conditions of their labour contractors.

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

But recent data from 2018 shows that roadside inspections have decreased to a quarter of inspections carried out in 2007. In the year of the accident, there were 52 roadside inspections set up and 522 vehicles were checked. In 2018, only 12 roadside inspections were set up with 133 vehicles inspected.

Citations for mechanical deficiencies have also increased for inspected vehicles.

The Farm Workers’ Inter-Agency Compliance Committee, which was set up as a direct response to the 2007 crash, released a quarterly inspection report on Sept. 7, 2019, showing 28 per cent of inspected vehicles failed to meet proper standards. Mechanical issues were the most common infraction.

Over Labour Day weekend, on Aug. 31, 2019, a school bus carrying 36 agricultural workers crashed into a ditch, sending three workers to the hospital.

In the ten years following the 2007 crash, 23 farm workers have died working in B.C., according to the BCFED.

RELATED: Decreasing safety standards for vehicles transporting farm workers, says B.C. regulatory report

RELATED: Several taken to hospital in Abbotsford bus crash with minor injuries

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