Bill 6, Alberta’s new farm safety legislation, will be a test both for the NDP Government and the Wildrose Opposition

Posted on November 17, 2015, 1:39 am
5 mins

PHOTOS: Down on the Alberta farm, successive Conservative governments have made sure farm animals had more rights than farm workers. Below: Alberta Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson and Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, who may be about to fix this.

It’s an embarrassing blot on the record of successive Progressive Conservative governments and the premiers who led them that Alberta farm workers have had to wait so many years for common sense farm safety legislation.

Under the Tories, animals had more rights than farm workers in the only Canadian province where farm work was exempt from health and safety laws, farm employees could not legally refuse unsafe work, and anyone who worked as an employee on a farm, no matter how big, had no access to Workers Compensation. Child labour laws? No such thing on the farms of Tory Alberta either.

Lori_SigurdsonUnder the so-called Farming and Ranching Exemption, the government’s health and safety inspectors weren’t even allowed to conduct an investigation when a farm worker or a child was killed or seriously injured. Pleas to fix even that, which could have been done through a simple cabinet order, fell on deaf Tory ears.

The thing was, though, farmers big and small didn’t want to pay for farm safety, and theirs was a constituency the PCs under a whole string of premiers listened to with care while ignoring the farm fatalities that continued to pile up at a rate of about 15 every year, year after year. There have been about 450 deaths over the past 30 years, 24 of them last year alone.

There were plenty of lame excuses – usually about how sensible safety regulations would muck up the business of running a family farm, never mind that many of these workplaces were full-scale industrial operations, or that “needless regulations” would place a burden of red tape on farmers.

There were always plenty of calls for more education, whatever that was supposed to accomplish. But legislation that would actually make a difference was simply not on the Tory agenda.

Oneil_Carlier_2015That may now be about to change. We should know as soon as later today. The NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley – which has called determinedly over its years in opposition for fair farm safety legislation – is about to introduce Bill 6, which will be called the Enhanced Protection of Farm Workers Act or words to that effect.

The details of the bill are yet to be revealed, but the NDP’s Agriculture Minister, Oneil Carlier, and its Labour Minister, Lori Sigurdson, have called a news conference for this morning on a farm just northeast of Edmonton, so the signs are reassuring.

Nevertheless, this will be a test for the NDP government, because it needs to show that it too won’t fall short on an important question of principle and legislative fairness by failing to give farm workers the full protection of access to occupational health and safety, labour standards, labour relations and Workers Compensation legislation.

At the same time, it will also be a major test for the conservative Wildrose Opposition Party. In our system of government, the role of the Opposition is to propose alternative legislation and governing ideas. But if the Opposition opposes this legislation with the lame old Tory arguments, less family farm red tape and all that, they will be revealed as the same old Tory bag carriers for narrow special interests.

There’s a common rhetorical theme emerging in PC and Wildrose circles about how Saskatchewan’s finances seem to be doing better than Alberta’s because, you know, Premier Brad Wall is a conservative just like them.

But if they’re going to hold up Saskatchewan as a model for the new Alberta – with or without the 5-per-cent sales tax that makes its balanced budgets possible – they should remember that in that province, occupational health and safety laws have applied to farm workers for more than 40 years.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

12 Comments to: Bill 6, Alberta’s new farm safety legislation, will be a test both for the NDP Government and the Wildrose Opposition

  1. Athabascan

    November 17th, 2015

    I’m curious to see how the Wildrosers will spin this into something negative. They of all people should be in favour of farm safety. That is unless it costs an extra dollar, or it’s the government mandating the safety rules.

    God forbid one dollar or the government should prevent another child’s death in some agricultural factory (oops, I meant the sacred family farm).

    Reply
    • Jamie

      November 27th, 2015

      Please do you homework and read the bill and supporting documents. That is not what this bill is about at all. Farmers and ranchers are all in favour of farm safety, in fact we practice it to the utmost! Most farms don’t employ workers, just our family. This is our livelihood and lifestyle. All farms and ranches do have insurance that cover accidents. This bill would mean that our children can’t go 50 feet away from our homes!! We will I longer be able to count upon community support in doing work quickly to see that you the consumer gets their food at a decent price (heaven for it Safeway raises that for you!) this bill will not prevent death any more than it will in any other industry. You, my uniformed friend, are an idiot.

      Reply
      • David Climenhaga

        November 28th, 2015

        Thanks, Jamie, for your thoughtful comment. I will have more to say on this topic soon. DJC

        Reply
        • John F Turanich

          December 18th, 2015

          did you ever notice CONservatives like to call people names when they have nothing smart to say .Maybe ask them about the $13 billion debt the left the NDP to pay back?

          Reply
    • Farm gal

      November 29th, 2015

      What do you know about farming, you brain dead hack? Did you grow up in town, playing video games on your fat ass, while never actually contributing to society. Well guess what, my farm raised kids love to help out around the farm. They love animals, and learn reasonable responsibility from a young age. They don’t need an I-pad to keep them entertained like most non-farm kids do, as from the life experience they have gained on the farm in thier short lives already has opened up a world of imagination for them. They know rules and boundaries, and they know the world does not revolve around them. They appreciate what they have. They would be devastated if some ignorant person tried to take the only life they know, away from them.

      Reply
      • David Climenhaga

        November 29th, 2015

        Thank you, Farm Gal. You are right to surmise that I grew up in a city, although not playing video games, seeing as King George, the sixth that is, was still on the throne when I was born. I am going to take your assumption that I am young enough to have done so as confirmation of my youthful literary voice. I assume you have never seen my ass, else you wouldn’t have made that comment. I do know a thing or two about farming as a business, notwithstanding the typical snobbery of the farm community, as I covered Canadian agriculture for several years for the business department of the Calgary Herald. From that I learned, for example, that the definitiuon of “family farm” prevalent in Canada can encompass everything from, well, family farms, to large industrial operations. Believe me, I have visited ’em all. I have also raised a couple of children to adulthood, an activity that, notwithstanding the mythologies apparently prevalent among the Western Canadian farm industry, is not all that different whether one lives in the city or the country. Neither, as it happens, had access to iPads or other forms of video games as children. Just sayin’.

        Reply
  2. David Climenhaga

    November 17th, 2015

    I was pleased to see today that the new legislation proposed by the NDP was sweeping in nature and will give farm and ranch workers the same rights – or at least most of the same rights – as other working people in this province. Under the proposed changes to several pieces of legislation, farm workers will gain the right to refuse unsafe work without fear of being fired, and will have to be paid minimum wage, overtime and vacation pay in accordance with the province’s minimum standards. Provincial investigators will be able to enter a farm site to do safety inspections and impose penalties. Workers will be able to exercise their fundamental constitutional right to join together in unions and bargain collectively for wages and other benefits. All that said given the nature of agricultural workplaces, this will be difficult to enforce – and impossible to enforce if the NDP does not also enact significant changes to Alberta labour law, which remains among the most heavily tilted in favour of bosses in Canada. DJC

    Reply
  3. Ken Larsen

    November 18th, 2015

    As a full time farmer for almost 40 years I applaud the government finally moving on this file. However I have to take some exception to a few statements.

    First, the Conservatives never paid careful attention to farmer interests; they did however pay very close attention to the pleadings of the astro-turf farm groups they financed and Commissions they mandated. To get on one of these Commissions and claim to represent farmers it is only necessary to show up at a regional meeting with a car load of your often belligerent friends to get elected. This puts the guy on a gravy train claiming to represent farmers on all sorts of very expensive trade missions and meetings. All expenses paid of course, so it is a wonderful source of off-farm income. The only requirement was to toe the Conservative Party big business line.

    Second you claim big and small farmers never want to pay for safety. For profitable farms spending on safety is tax deductable, so it is more than just a worthwhile investment. Applying some WCB rules to farms also means that those who live off the avails of hired men and women cannot be sued if accidents happen to those workers.

    As to the sacred family farm, almost all farms are still family farms although the scale of things has changed. For most farms in the grain sector the game plan has been to substitute technology to replace workers, so much of this legislation will be largely irrelevant to those operations. However, the legislation should make it safer to work in intensive livestock operations and the other remaining labour intensive areas of agriculture.

    But the more important context is that farmers are facing ever shrinking margins caused by Conservatives stripping the farm community of whatever market power it once had with marketing boards and cooperatives. This means all farmers are being pushed to their managerial and technological limits by the demands of the oligarchs of the food industry for ever cheaper raw product. That is what really produces the farm tragedies we see all too often and this legislation will only slow that down.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      November 18th, 2015

      Ken is of course right that all not farmers are guilty of not wishing to pay for their employees’ safety. There are notable and honourable exceptions, of whom I know Ken is one, so I owe him and those like him an apology. That said, I do believe a lot of farmers in Western Canada – perhaps a very large majority – are inclined to work strenuously against their own interests by adhering to orthodox conservative doctrine, including seeing any sensible regulation as “red tape” and interference with their independence. So I do believe that when the Wildrose Party bleats about this legislation, they are speaking for a majority of the people in the farm community. I’ll have a little more to say about this issue in the next few days.

      Reply
      • Jamie

        November 27th, 2015

        Most farms and ranches do not hire employees, just our immediate family. Safety is our first concern in anything we do! I don’t think you have read all of the documentation on exactly what this will do to our operations.

        Reply
  4. Phil Ivers

    December 1st, 2015

    I agree with you that it is a blot that we haven’t had common sense farm safety legislation in this province, however, to think that the proposed legislation contains any common sense is a rather large leap of faith.

    In nearly every other province, where farm safety is legislated, there are multiple exemptions for family farms. For example, in Saskatchewan, farm kids in traditional farming operations are exempt from most labour laws, excluding basic prohibitions from operating motorized farm equipment and handling dangerous chemicals.

    Bill 6, as I understand it, simply removes the current exemption for farms and ranches for OH&S, WCB, Employment Standards, etc. Therefore, after Bill 6 passes, a family farm will be subject to the same OH&S restrictions found in a factory or construction site. We’re talking about peoples’ homes, being subjected to these restrictions, 24×7. Family farms aren’t like other businesses. There isn’t a clear demarcation between where the “home” ends and the “business” begins. If a farmer parks a vehicle in the machine shop, before the farmer runs into town to pick up groceries, they’d first have to don safety glasses, a hard hat, steel-toed boots, a reflective vest, hearing protection, and have their WHMIS certification up to date before walking through the door of the machine shop in order to get into the vehicle. That doesn’t sound like common sense to me. Limiting harvesting hours to 8 hours a day doesn’t sound like common sense to me. Not allowing neighbours to lend a helping hand during branding or harvest doesn’t sound like common sense to me.

    For common sense to prevail, perhaps the government should first consult with the stakeholders – the farmers and ranchers. Once the government has held focus groups, town halls, on-line forums, etc., they should gather all their feedback and come up with common-sense amendments and exemptions to OH&S legislation that will allow for safety, while not unnecessarily encumbering the farmer. Once they’ve got the proper amendments to the detailed legislation, then they can make the law come into force.

    Instead, they’ve said “in 6 weeks, existing OH&S legislation will now apply to everyone, across the board. Maybe, after a while, we’ll think about tweaking the actual details and implementation. In the meantime, we won’t bother giving any concrete examples of what the changes actually mean to those affected.” And pundits wonder why the farmers and ranchers are up-in-arms?

    I think that the OH&S regulations that apply to family farms are the main reasons that there is opposition to this bill. I don’t think that there are a large group who oppose WCB or allowing workers to organize, since these things apply to commercial or large-scale operations, and not their immediate family. Farmers are all concerned with safety, especially when it comes to their own family. Family farms will be changed forever, and for the worst, if the ‘family’ is outlawed from participating in the daily chores and routines. This is why there is opposition.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)