Alberta’s largest union is calling on the government to tighten transportation safety regulations lest migrant workers in that province suffer a similar fate to those killed in a recent crash in Ontario that claimed 11 lives.
“The lax laws governing how farm workers can be taken to and from work sites are a recipe for disaster,” says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), which represents 145,000 workers.
McGowan notes that in Alberta it is legal for farm workers to ride in the back of pickup trucks and larger trucks due to an exemption to the Alberta Traffic Safety Act/Rules of the Road Regulation.
“The government says it’s wrong for all other Albertans to travel in this unsafe way, but says it’s OK for farm workers. Why? Are their lives worth any less?”
On Feb. 7, 10 migrant workers from Peru were killed in a horrific collision in the hamlet of Hampstead, west of Waterloo, Ontario, when their 15-passenger van ran a stop sign and collided with a flatbed truck.
Eleven people were killed in the accident including the driver of the truck, making it Ontario’s worst crash in at least a decade.
Fifteen-passenger vans such as the one involved in the Ontario crash have been dubbed “death traps on wheels” by some U.S. safety experts, and banned by the U.S. government for the transportation of children.
The vans have also been banned in Nova Scotia, and from transporting public school students in New Brunwick and Quebec, while some Alberta school boards will no longer insure them.
However, Alberta and most other provinces continue to allow farm workers to travel in the vans.
The AFL is calling on the Alberta government to end the exemption for riding in the back of trucks, ban the use of 15-passenger vans, and outlaw vans that do not meet acceptable safety standards, among other improvements for migrant workers.
“During her campaign to become premier, Alison Redford promised tougher rules to protect farm workers,” says McGowan. “Farm workers have the right to the same protections as all other Albertans. We expect the premier, as a human rights lawyer, to recognize this and fulfill her pledge now.”
On Feb. 17, around 50 protesters gathered outside the Office of the Chief Coroner in Toronto, calling for an inquest into the deaths of the workers killed in the Feb. 7 collision as well as for laws to better protect all foreign workers in Ontario.
The protest was led by worker’s rights group Justicia for Migrant Workers, which says that despite several tragedies involving migrant workers, there has never been a coroner’s inquest conducted in Ontario to examine the death of a worker employed under the temporary foreign workers program.
“As we mourn this tragedy it is important that we take immediate steps to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again,” says the group’s organizer, Chris Ramsaroop.
In 2007, three female farm workers were killed in B.C. when a van carrying 16 workers overturned on an Abbottsford highway, about 70 km southeast of Vancouver. Only two of the passenger seats were equipped with seat belts.
A 2010 study funded by Worksafe B.C. found that unsafe vehicles and careless driving continue to put farm workers at risk and that vans and buses used by farm labour contractors to transport migrant workers between work sites frequently lack sufficient seat belts.
A Transport Canada review of 15-passenger vans is currently underway.