Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Liberals struggle in responding to farm worker deaths

It's hard to know how a government should respond to events like the terrible crash that killed three women farm workers travelling in a crowded van.
Not like the Liberals, at least based on their efforts so far.
The women died last Wednesday on their way to a farm in the Fraser Valley.
The NDP started asking questions in the legislature Wednesday. They continued Thursday and devoted entire question periods to farm workers' issues Monday and Tuesday.
So far, the questions have been better the answers. Solicitor General John Les first tried to argue that nobody should be talking about the crash and whether more needed to be done to keep workers safe.
Police, the WCB and the Coroners Service will investigate and everyone should just wait, he said. And Les accused the New Democrats of being "immoral," raising the issue to score political points.
But the call to wait for investigations that take months or years has been used to often as an excuse for inaction. The public expects a response.
And the "immoral" charge looked hypocritical. The Liberals would have posed similar questions in opposition. The NDP were trying to score political points, but along the way real issues get raised. That, in its clunky way, is how the system works.
The next day, the New Democrats returned the issue. Leader Carole James noted a similar crash in 2003 claimed a farm workers' life. The coroner investigated and said seatbelts could have saved the woman's life. The WCB recommended that roadside inspections by a joint federal-provincial safety be restored.
Why did neither recommendation result in meaningful action, James asked. Les stuck to the argument that the questions were out of line.
Not much help for people wondering if farm workers being shuttled around by labour contractors were safe.
The NDP was back on the issue Monday as James again asked for assurances that the government would improve farm worker protection.
Les started badly with his first words. "It's a new week and it's the same old opposition, I'm afraid," he said. It sounded like he still didn't think the issue was worth discussing.
But Les went on to acknowledge that the government was "stepping up enforcement activity to ensure that there is compliance with the existing laws and regulations."
That sounds a good thing, although Les was vague about the details or why he thought it was such a bad idea to consider last week.
The New Democrats kept raising questions, some not directly related. They noted the Liberals had eliminated overtime and minimum wage protection for farm workers. And they quoted a government directive to employment standards inspectors to cut their inspections when farms were busy - which was also when the most workers were there.
Corky Evans, leaping into the fray, asked why the Liberals eliminated a federal-provincial farm labour inspection program.
Evans, in full flight, said he wasn't interested in what the "spin children," as he called the Liberals' communications staffers, had briefed the minister to say. He wanted actual answers.
Unkind. But based on the ministers' responses, justified. Labour Minister Olga Ilich said record low unemployment meant farm workers would be better treated by employers.
Maybe. But there aren't a lot of alternatives for people doing farm work. And Ilich could be seen as suggesting that farm workers just have to accept some risks except when times are good.
Agriculture Minister Pat Bell then went back to attacking the NDP and said the legislature shouldn't even be talking about the issue.
The questions continued Tuesday, focused more on the impact of the Liberals' elimination of minimum wage protection for farm workers.
The reality is, this could have just been another crash.
But the NDP has raised good questions about protection for farm workers. The government hasn't had good answers.
In that situation, it's in both the opposition's political interest and the public interest to keep on asking.
Footnote: The largely unspoken subtext to this - alluded to by Evans Tuesday - is the fact that the farm workers are largely from the IndoCanadian and other immigrant communities. They are watching both parties' responses to the issues closely.


Anonymous said...

Only in BC they say!
It is pretty weird when our government has a system allowing folks from out of the province or country, benefits that BC citizens don't get. They talk about BC farmworkers being the best paid in Canada and a few minutes later we are told, the BC workers are the third best paid in canada. Then they tell us they can't get enough BC workers for these so called well paid jobs. If they can't get their story straight on something as basic as who gets paid how much for their labour, why would we beleive almost anything else they would and have said about BC farm workers? Shame on your government Mr. Campbell and maye you should take a hard look at the person who have for Labour Minister as she seems rather inept at the job you gave her.

Anonymous said...

Lots of Bs about farm workers in the house again today (Thursday) Minister Bell has all the ideas from the families of the latest dead workers. He failed to mention the RCMP told the public today that the van that flipped killing three women had a total of TWO seat belts. wonder who did the last safety check on that van? He admitted that the BC Fed, Jim Sinclair was with the survivors in a meeting with him today. Foks will continueto get hurt if this government doesn't tighten up on a number of things surrounding farm workers. Or Paul will be writing the same sort of colum again.