This year Jagjeet Sidhu marked a sombre anniversary: it's been ten years since his wife, and the mother of his three children, died in a workplace incident.
Thirty-one-year-old Sarabjit Kaur Sidhu was on her way to work in a van contracted by her employer on a rainy morning in March of 2007. The vehicle slid across the fast lane and flipped over. She was one of three women who died instantly.
"Time is a great healer," said Sidhu, who now drives a truck and raises his three children with the help of family.
"My son was just 15 months [when the accident happened] my daughters were 3 and 7 years old."
WorkSafeBC's report on the incident found there were 17 people in the 15-capacity van and only two functioning seatbelts inside. The van was owned and operated by a labour contractor — RHA Enterprises Ltd — that was tasked with transporting Sidhu and the other farm workers to Chilliwack. The company was charged under B.C.'s WorkSafe Act and fined nearly $70,000 for the incident.
Jagjeet Sidhu — who now works to raise awareness about workplace safety — believes that fine should have been much higher.
"The laws are very soft and no one is scared," said Sidhu.
WorkSafeBC has since amended the way it calculates penalty amounts.
A CBC News analysis has found that companies in British Columbia who are found to have violated safety laws in cases involving a workplace fatality pay the lowest median fines in Canada. The median is the point at which half of the fines are higher and half are lower.
CBC News requested records for workplace-fatality fines from each province and territory. While the time frames for the provided records varied from one region to another, a sample totalling slightly more than 250 cases going as far back as 2007 was gathered.
Including victim surcharges, and other amounts, the median fine levied across the country as a whole was $97,500. In B.C. the median administrative fines going back to 2013, as well a handful of cases dealt with through the courts was $26,563.
Quebec was the only province that couldn't supply statistics on penalties in connection with workplace fatalities, but its legislation sets out the lowest maximum penalties in the country for first-time offenders. Smaller jurisdictions such as Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories had no fatality-related convictions in recent time.
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And while B.C.'s workplace safety laws contain provisions for up to a 12-month jail term, the province has only once ever sent someone to jail for a workplace violation.
In the case of Sidhu's wife and the two other farm workers who were killed, the employer was fined a total of $69,801 under the Workers' Compensation Act, but the Crown did not approve criminal negligence charges, despite police recommendations. The driver of the car was fined $2,000 under the Motor Vehicle Act.
Labour groups say they want to see stiffer penalties for violators, including tougher fines and more aggressive enforcement. They say the province should take the lead.
"I believe there was some reluctance by the police and prosecutors to take that big step," said Stephen Hunt, director of the United Steelworkers for Western Canada.. "There had to be political will to make that happen.
"I think politicians had to signal to the prosecutors and the police: you know what, we got your back on this, you will enforce the law. You will stop the killing by enforcing the law, so go at it."
Fines and criminal charges
Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said she found the data CBC collected on median fines "very disturbing." The federation has long called for stiffer fines and penalties in connection to workplace deaths.
"We are completely outraged ... by the lack of action on employers when workers die."
In B.C., the enforcement of serious workplace violations can be done through three main channels:
- Administrative penalties handed down by WorkSafeBC;
- In more serious incidents, the case can be forwarded to the Crown for prosecution in court;
- If there is evidence of criminality, the police can recommend charges under the Criminal Code.
One aspect that sets B.C. apart from the rest of Canada is the way penalties are determined by WorksafeBC. The amount is based not just on the nature of the violation and the company's history, but also the size of the company's payroll.
"Differences may arise because administrative penalties are based on an employer's payroll. Small employers have smaller payrolls and, as such, would be subject to relatively smaller penalties than large employers with larger payrolls," WorkSafeBC spokeswoman Erica Simpson told CBC News.
In 2014, the B.C. government initiated a review of WorkSafeBC's policies and practices after two workers died in a deadly sawmill blasts. Crown counsel said criminal charges could not be laid because much of the evidence would have been inadmissible as a result of a fumbled investigation.
The B.C Federation of Labour and the United Steelworkers said in addition to stiffer administrative penalties, they want more cases to go through the criminal justice system.
"If you fine somebody, especially under provincial acts ... it becomes part of doing business. It's just a write off," said Hunt, with the teelworkers.
The only time a B.C. company has been charged criminally, according to the Steelworkers, was in 2016 when Stave Lake Quarry Inc. was fined a total of $115,000 after pleading guilty to criminal negligence causing death. In that case, Kelsey Anne Kristian, 22, was killed when she was pinned by a runaway truck at quarry in Mission, B.C. According to judge's decision in that case, the company has since taken action to address safety and training issues since the incident.
When it comes to criminal enforcement, authorities also take their cues from the federal government. After an inquiry into 1992 Westray disaster that killed 26 miners in Nova Scotia, the federal government said "the criminal law must be reserved for the most serious offences, those that involve grave moral fault."
Hunt of the Steelworkers said another reason for the small number of criminal charges relates to jurisdictional disputes between police and workplace investigators.
"I think there was a lack of understanding between the police and the regulatory authorities over who has jurisdiction [at a workplace death], and that's starting to bear out now," said Hunt.
WorkSafeBC reviewing policies
WorksafeBC declined to be interviewed about CBC's analysis. B.C.'s Labour Minister Harry Bains responded to CBC's findings by saying the focus should be on workplace accident prevention.
"I look at fines as a deterrence after the fact, because the violation took place and there's already consequences," said Bains.
After the NDP formed a government in B.C. this summer and Bains was named minister of labour, he said he met with the board of WorkSafeBC. and has asked for a complete review of its policies.
"Everything should be looked at," said Bains.
"Whether it's [stiffer] penalties or other measures that they must take, all of that is on the table."
Note on methodology:
- For the purposes of this story, the fine is defined as the sum total of all court imposed fines in a single case, plus victim surcharges and any required payments.
- CBC News requested records on workplace safety-related convictions (administrative penalties in B.C. in nearly all cases) in cases involving fatalities from each jurisdiction in the country. The timeframe covered by the records in each jurisdiction varied based on the availability of the records. Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories did not have any records of convictions related to a workplace fatality to provide. Quebec told CBC News it could not produce the requested records filtered for fatality-related convictions because of limitations of its records management system.
- Records for B.C. were extracted from WorkSafeBC's online administrative penalty database. Fines related to some cases that were disposed of through the courts were provided by WorkSafeBC.
- This analysis represents a snapshot in time based on a sample of available records for each jurisdiction. As a result, some recent or past convictions may not have been included in the analysis.
With files from Jacques Marcoux and Kristin Annable