Canadian Politics (Provincial), Labour, Published Articles

Farm worker rights in Alberta

Jeremy Appel
Originally published in the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) 

Alberta’s NDP government has encountered fierce opposition to its efforts to extend basic workplace safety and labour regulations to the province’s farms and ranches. Prior to the introduction Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, Alberta was the only province where farms were not bound by mandatory occupational health and safety standards. As of January 1, Alberta’s farmers now have the right to refuse unsafe work, receive overtime pay, apply for workers’ compensation in case of injury, and unionize.

The bill, passed by the NDP majority in Alberta’s parliament on December 10, amends four pieces of previous legislation—the Employment Standards Code, Labour Relations Code, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and Workers’ Compensation Regulation—to bring farm workers under the same regulatory regime as other workers. Each of these laws had exemptions for farmers and ranchers. Bill 6 repeals these provisions, applying labour and safety regulations across the board.

The changes were spurred by the death, last October, of three girls on a farm in the Central Alberta hamlet of Withrow. The three sisters, aged 11 to 13, suffocated under a truckload of canola they were playing in. Alberta’s agriculture minister, Oneil Carlier, responded by calling for measures to enhance farm safety with the stated goal of protecting rural children. In late January, Carlier announced the creation of six working groups, made up of a dozen people each, who were to begin developing a rollout plan for Bill 6 at the end of February.

“Years of promises made and promises broken by Conservative premiers is enough,” wrote Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan in November. “Agricultural workers can now expect a minimum wage. Hazards in the workplace will have to be labelled. Workers will have the right to refuse unsafe work without penalty…. In the event that someone dies at work, there will be an investigation.”

Opposition critics and some agricultural associations, on the other hand, challenged the government as trying to impose unnecessary labour laws under the guise of protecting public safety. The legislation also stoked outrage from family farmers who felt their bucolic work methods were being trampled on by a social democratic government few of them voted for. Bill 6 “appeared to disregard the traditional community approach to farming in Alberta, in which family members are active on the farm and neighbours help neighbours with various tasks,” wrote Michael Hughes, a lawyer who advises employers on labour issues, in December.

As a direct response to this criticism, the government amended the bill to preserve family farming. “Alberta farm and ranch producers with paid employees who are not the owner or related to the owner will be affected by Bill 6,” reads a government statement. “This means that family members can continue to contribute to farming operations as they always have and neighbours can still volunteer to help each other out.”

Still, many are calling it a bad communications blunder for the government. Wildrose party leader Brian Jean, who as recently as March 2015 told CBC he supported new farm safety regulations, is using the opportunity to denounce the NDP as anti-democratic. Generally the right in Alberta is using dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the bill to whip up wholesale opposition to the NDP’s policies—namely the carbon tax and a recently wrapped-up oil royalty review.

Though the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA), which represents the province’s farmers, ranchers and other agricultural workers, supports the broader goal of enhancing farm safety, it, too, has reservations about the way the bill was rolled out.

“AFA’s position on Bill 6 is that while we welcome some of the changes in the proposed legislation, more consultation and communication are essential,” reads the organization’s website. “The quick implementation schedule and unclear communication about the scope of this legislation has meant a significant learning curve for farmers.”

Bob Barnetson, professor of labour studies at Athabasca University, staunchly supports the bill, which he says represents “a long overdue change that brings Alberta employment law for farm workers into the mainstream.” Barnetson atributes farmers’ opposition to the legislation as a desire to squeeze every bit of profit out of their employees.

“Farmers are no different from any other business owner,” he says. “They typically dislike the additional costs associated with paying workers living wages and offering them safe workplaces. They would rather externalize those costs onto the workers.”

Barneston points out small family farms are untouched by the legislation, but their plight is being used as a wedge issue by the two conservative opposition parties to mask their support for big agribusiness.

“Who’s really affected by Bill 6? There’s about 43,000 farm operations… in Alberta, but only about 13,000 of those have paid workers, so only about 30% of farms are affected by Bill 6, and those tend to be the biggest farms.”

Barnetson concedes the government failed to convince Albertans that the legislation is in the public’s interest. “Much of the opposition to this bill is frankly hysterically misinformed,” he says. “I would think if the NDP could do this again, they would adopt a different communications strategy…. Even the premier has publicly accepted that the communication was bad.”

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