City of Surrey worker Aman Cheema knows how high the stakes can be when it comes to workplace health and safety.
When his father, Joginder, first came to Canada, he worked on farms where they sprayed chemicals on the crops without providing any kind of face mask or respiratory protections for the workers. Joginder contracted lung cancer, which spread rapidly to his throat and brain. Two days before Aman’s 22nd birthday, his father passed away.
His father’s experience ingrained in Aman the need for workplace health and safety – and respect for workers’ rights. Today, Aman is a leader in CUPE 402 at the City of Surrey, serving as recording secretary, chairing the local’s political and community action committee and co-chairing the CUPE BC Municipal Committee, among other roles.
He says he wasn’t always active, or vocal.
“In high school, I was quiet and shy. I could never speak to a group,” he explains. “Now I don’t have an issue going to a mic and speaking up. I wish my high school teachers could see that!”
It wasn’t until Aman started a job at the City of Surrey when he was 23 that he started to learn about the role unions play in making things better for everyone. A foreman who was retiring encouraged him to go to a meeting. He did – and got a hoodie sweatshirt that first-timers get, which was pretty awesome, he says.
Aman credits CUPE BC health and safety activist Tom Wiebe for encouraging and supporting his activism from day one. He also points to a course on young workers delivered by the Canadian Labour Congress for helping him connect the dots bet-ween being a young worker, having rights, and being able to act to make things better.
“That course is what opened it up for me. It all started to make sense, I cared for these things all my life and that set the flame. I honestly had no idea I cared so deeply and was so passionate about these things,” he says.
Aman has channelled that passion into helping young people who are just coming into the workforce learn more about their rights, including the right to refuse unsafe work.
“If my dad had a health and safety representative, maybe he would have had more protection. If he had known about the chemicals, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten cancer.”
Health and safety is like second nature to Aman.
“Someone’s going to work, I ask them if they have their mask. It’s the truth, people need to know.”