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Farm worker says accident has ‘broke him forever’

Gurdev Khakh, 68, said he was hit by a pesticide trailer that tipped over while he was working for Purewal Blueberries. - Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS
Gurdev Khakh, 68, said he was hit by a pesticide trailer that tipped over while he was working for Purewal Blueberries.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/THE NEWS

As a plane soars off a runway at the Pitt Meadows airport, Gurdev Khakh looks at the acres of blueberries in front of him and laments – the fields are in another country.

“This is not Canada,” says the 68-year-old, as he wobbles to stand with a broken knee.

He says the rights that Canadians cherish don’t seem to apply when he steps onto the fields to work for one of North America’s largest blueberry farms –Purewal Brother Enterprise Ltd. which owns 1,000 acres of farmland in Pitt Meadows.

Speaking in Punjabi, Khakh shrugs as he makes the statement.

“In city, it’s different rules,” he says, in broken English.

In April, Khakh was injured after a pesticide trailer toppled onto him while working in a field off Ford Road near the airport.

He was trapped underneath a tank filled with 3,000 litres of water mixed with herbicide. Khakh’s left leg twisted back, snapping his knee. His shoulder was crushed and he was drenched in a chemical concoction.

“I was screaming,” says Khakh, through a translator. His co-workers shouted for help.

It took two men to lift the tank off Khakh.

By the time a supervisor arrived, Khakh claims he was lying in the field for more than 20 minutes.

Someone grabbed cushions off a couch from a farm house nearby, put them in the back of a van. Khakh was carried into the van and driven across the city to a processing plant on Hale Road.

There, people helped him change his clothes and someone called an ambulance.

I could see all these people around, says Khakh, but he was disoriented from the pain.

“I couldn’t think clearly.”

He was taken to Royal Columbian Hospital where he had surgery on his leg and spent a month recovering. He now walks with a limp.

“I’m broken forever,” he says.

WorkSafe BC has found Purewal Bros. failed to report Khakh’s injury to the Worker’s Compensation Board, a violation of provincial law.

Their findings follow an inspection conducted last week after Khakh went public with his story.

“Our officers are certainly following up and it is an ongoing matter with the employer but it is not a formal investigation,” said WorkSafe spokesperson Donna Freeman.

Gary Purewal, who owns the farm, said he is co-operating with WorkSafe B.C. but did not comment on the inspection report findings.

The WorkSafe report describes conditions at Purewal Bros. which employs around 100 people – mostly Indo-Canadian and Mexican workers – at a sprawling operation in Pitt Meadows.

It found Purewal was unable to show the workers were trained and supervised. There was no designated first aid attendant when the accident happened, there were no written first aid procedures or a record of Khakh’s injuries. The investigator also found the accident scene had been disturbed and Khakh’s serious injuries were not reported to the Worker’s Compensation Board, a violation of the Act.

WorkSafe BC is now considering an administrative penalty against Purewal Bros.

WorkSafe’s findings confirms Khakh’s story. He says he knew nothing about filing a workers claim although he’s been working for Purewal for the past five years.

He says he learned about the worker’s compensation board from a taxi driver, who drove him to a doctor’s appointment.

The taxi driver connected Khakh with Charan Gill, president of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, who has since helped Khakh file a claim.

Khakh’s story however isn’t unique.

Gill, who co-founded the Canadian Farmworkers Union, has been hearing similar complaints from farm workers from across the province for years.

“These workers don’t even know they can refuse to work in a dangerous place or go into a bus that is overloaded,” says Gill.

“They don’t know their rights and responsibilities.”

Gill’s organization used to educate farm workers in different languages but has since lost funding to provide those services.

There were a host of recommendations issued to the province after three women were killed in 2007 and more issued following an inquest into the recent deaths of three men on a Langley mushroom farm.

Gill says little has changed.

“It’s a mess. These people (the provincial government) don’t listen. They don’t understand they have created some gaps in services.

“We want to bridge those gaps.”

The province, however, says there are programs in place to educate workers who don’t speak English or those who have just immigrated to Canada.

The Employment Standards Branch has a farm compliance team of four staff who conduct site visits and payroll audits, participate in roadside vehicle inspections, and conduct education sessions with employers and employees.

Workers and employers can also access assistance and information – over the phone, online or in-person at one of the nine employment standards branch locations across the province.

Employee rights information is available online in English, French, Chinese, Punjabi, Hindi, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Spanish.

A spokesperson said employment standards branch staff also conduct education and outreach programs to inform workers and employers through seminars and presentations in schools, workers and employer associations, networking through community agencies and contact with immigrant settlement groups.

Through its ethnic media campaign, ESB also has conducted approximately 75 guest appearances on Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and English-speaking radio and television programs to answer questions about employment standards and employee rights.

As well, the farm workers’ inter-agency compliance committee ensures that a number of agencies share information and coordinate enforcement activities within the agricultural sector.

WorkSafe B.C. files:

• 76 inspection reports from Jan. 1, 1999 to Aug. 1, 2012

• 1999: A worker was killed. WorkSafe found crews were not supervised to ensure safety.

• 2002: 9 violations including various hazards, no supervision or training.

• 2007: Several farm vehicles found unsafe.

• 2011: Corrective orders issued after Mexican workers report inadequate first aid, training and potable water.

• 2012: Worker was injured by a co-worker earlier this year.

Source: WorkSafeBC

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