PHOTOS: Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier as he walked through an anti-NDP demonstration in front of the Alberta Legislature shortly before the passage of Bill 6 in December 2015. Below: NDP Labour Minister Christina Gray, Alberta Federation of Agriculture President Lynn Jacobson and Wildrose Agriculture Critic Dave Schneider.

The New Democratic Party Government’s notorious Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, became the law of Alberta on Jan. 1, 2016, after a protracted temper tantrum by a significant number of farmers encouraged by right-wing politicians who strove mightily to scare the bejeebers out of them.

What has happened since, and what does it mean?

christinagrayNaturally, Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier and Labour Minister Christina Gray, who was appointed to cabinet after the Bill 6 brouhaha, have both worked hard to calm the seething fears of the farm community, with limited success.

But one measurable thing that’s happened is that in the first year since the NDP government brought in the controversial farm safety legislation the number of farm workers making Workers’ Compensation claims has skyrocketed by 134 per cent.

A total of 793 agricultural industry injury claims, including three fatality claims, were accepted by the Alberta Workers Compensation Board in 2016, compared with 339 claims in 2015.

The number of agricultural businesses registered with the WCB – it’s a little misleading to refer to these businesses simply as “farms” since many of them are more like farm-products factories – has increased a similar amount, by 107 per cent. That is to say, 3,629 agricultural operators with employees who are paid wages are now registered, compared with only 1,756 immediately before Bill 6 was enacted.

The dots are obvious and should be easy for anyone to connect: What this statistic illustrates is that hundreds of Alberta farm workers who before the NDP was elected didn’t have access to workers’ compensation were being injured and losing income without compensation.

In other words, what this statistic shows is that Bill 6 was desperately needed, and that the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act courageously passed by the Alberta Legislature on Dec. 10, 2015, by the government of Premier Rachel Notley in the face of huge – and when it came to its political opponents, hugely dishonest – opposition was the right thing to do.

lynnjacobsonBefore this sensible and necessary legislation became the law of the land, injured farmworkers were basically abandoned, left to their own resources. Or, if they had family resources, they could try to sue their employers for compensation – and it’s a hard road even for people with money to pursue a legal case.

If the victims of agricultural accidents were impoverished as a result, it fell to taxpayers to support them through an inadequate and capricious welfare system. Which means it fell to us to subsidize agricultural businesses at which worker safety was not a high priority.

Before Bill 6 became the law, agricultural businesses could voluntarily sign up with the WCB, or they could buy private insurance. Of course, as the Calgary Herald pointed out in an unusually balanced story about this development, there’s no way to determine how many agricultural operations have bought private insurance.

But as should be obvious to anyone who understands how Workers’ Compensation works – or, at least, how it’s supposed to work and used to in Alberta before creeping corporatization took hold at the WCB – it is far superior to private insurance because it is a no-fault system in which workers give up their right to sue in return for assured compensation if they are injured.

At least in theory, there should be no financial incentive to the WCB system to deny injured workers compensation to which they are entitled. Private insurance, beloved of neoliberal politicians as “choice,” does not work this way. Finding ways to deny legitimate claims is standard operating procedure at for-profit insurance corporations, and the cost of premiums encourages employers to press injured employees not to report their injuries.

schneiderNow, there can be no question the NDP mishandled the introduction of Bill 6 – as you might expect of an inexperienced government. They essentially allowed dishonest right-wing politicians to set the narrative for what the legislation meant, and that narrative became one of Big Government, unreasonable bureaucracy and infringing on the rights of independent family farms.

Never mind that this mostly amounted to a huge pile of a well-known agricultural product distributed by male cattle. It was compelling nonsense, taken at face value by many members of the farm community who should have known better, and swallowed hook, line and sinker by lots of city dwellers who know little about the realities of farming.

At least some agricultural leaders now admit this. The story quotes Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, saying the change has been positive and that farmers have found Workers Compensation is “far better than any insurance package that they’ve had.”

Kudos to reporter James Wood, who has been unfairly pilloried lately for a disgusting headline written by a copy editor for one of his stories, for making the effort to cover an NDP policy fairly.

“A lot of the things were not being claimed that probably should have been claimed before,” Mr. Jacobson diplomatically told the reporter. By “things,” of course, the Enchant-area farmer meant “injuries.” The statistics, on their face, validate his observation.

The presumably unexpected benefits of WBC coverage enumerated by Mr. Jacobson in Mr. Wood’s story include immunity from litigation by injured employees and former employees and payment from a general fund for the physical-rehabilitation costs of injured workers.

The story noted that the Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition, an agricultural industry group cobbled together with encouragement from the right-wing Opposition to oppose Bill 6, didn’t manage to produce a spokesperson to comment on the development.

The group, which claims to aim “to foster a culture of farm safety in Alberta,” did send the Herald a written statement that “the increase in farm injuries through WCB data alone is insufficient to determine farm incident frequency rates.” This is certainly true, since government sources indicated to me recently that a significant number of Alberta agricultural businesses have still not complied with the law and signed up with the WCB.

As for the opposition, both Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean and Progressive Conservative leadership frontrunner Jason Kenney have vowed to repeal the legislation if they are elected to lead a government.

Little Bow MLA Dave Schneider, the Wildrose agriculture critic, touts private insurance and claims replacement legislation would likely be drafted – you know, like the replacement legislation Donald Trump’s Republicans will create to replace Obamacare.

Any future conservative Alberta government would also likely try to reimpose the longstanding unconstitutional limitation on union membership by farm workers included in Bill 6, which was at the heart of the fury against the bill.

Despite the hard work by the government to rebuild its burnt bridges to the farm community, the NDP was seriously rattled by the Bill 6 fiasco. The Opposition has exploited this ruthlessly and effectively. Mr. Jacobson’s comments, at least, suggest that a campaign based in part on outright lies is starting to fray a little around the edges.

But the NDP can no longer afford to sit around naively waiting for the public to get it about the merits of its legislation. It must no longer let opposition groups and politicians dominated by corporate money and agendas set the narrative for sound legislative ideas that won’t necessarily just sell themselves.

Above all, as these figures show, it’s time for the NDP to get over their rude welcome to governing and get back to implementing the progressive agenda they were elected to enact.

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  1. David, as a farmer the role-out of this ominous Bill was a disaster, as you mentioned. But to say a “protracted temper tantrum”? Give the farming community a little credit here. Out of the blue comes Bill 6 being disguised as “farm safety” with a pile of labour relations attached to it. The general farming community were not getting any solid answers to their questions, the “consultation” town halls were a total joke, and the attitude of the government at the town halls was “don’t worry, we know what you need” when they didn’t have a clue. I was at one of the town halls so I saw first hand. Also, your comment, “They essentially allowed dishonest right-wing politicians to set the narrative for what the legislation meant, and that narrative became one of Big Government, unreasonable bureaucracy and infringing on the rights of independent family farms” is EXACTLY what it was. Consult first then propose legislation. Did you ever see farmers and ranchers protesting on the steps of the Leg for a Bill 6 prior to the NDP introducing it? Brian Topp learned his first lesson on dealing with Albertans here. Please, just give the farming community a little credit for being upset.

    1. All this may be true Mike. But the bill was primarily about ensuring farm workers in case of injury, and for the general public, learning that they had such protections, EVERYWHERE BUT IN ALBERTA…did not leave fair minded people impressed with our rural communities. The Wild Rose in particular, blew things out of proportion.

      Now many rural people supported them. But if you watched Brian Jean in the debates, he seemed like a robot, repeating one mantra: I WON’T RAISE YOUR TAXES. Now there are only so many variations to how you can say that, so we concluded they didn’t have a platform, believing that all Albertan’s cared about was hoarding their money.

      To follow such a one line campaign with dire predictions of family farms being destroyed (like corporate feedlots, abattoir monopolies and killing the wheat board weren’t sufficient?) by adding farm workers to Workman Compensation benefits, stretched credibility. Luckily, Wild Rosers could also raise the specter of the ‘dreaded socialists” destroying our province. Lot’s bought into that old canard.

      Fear is a more powerful drug than Cocaine. It should be employed sparingly, but the right in Alberta get high on it regularly lately. Climate change is a hoax, but giving the folks who help bring in our harvest protection is going to finish us off!!!


      1. Mary, you act like Farm workers everywhere had absolutely no insurance. Many had private insurance that was at least comparable. I think if employers had the option between WCB and comparable (or better) private insurance, I think a lot of grief would have been spared. In terms of this article, of course the number of WCB claims is going to dramatically increase, WCB is mandatory now….duh.

        Mike hit the mark, I was also involved in the Town Hall sessions and they were a joke… relating to long hours of work in calving season, the group at that session (Grande Prairie, I believe) was told “only put your bulls in with the cows during the day and they will only calve during the day.” FACT — that was really said. No matter how honorable the NDP intentions are in this issue, they looked like total idiots when they said things like that and the lack of any trust from the rural community is on them.

        Yes, the WR took advantage of the NDP’s bumbling, but really, they made it sooooo easy to do so and that is no one’s fault but their own! That’s is what’s really “laughable.”

      2. So Mary, why did the NDP roll this disaster out as an omnibus bill and not just an amendment to the WCB coverage on farms?

        Also, what did the Wildrose blow out of proportion? Their constituents, and farmers from across the province, had legitimate questions that were not being answered by the gov’t. My NDP MLA did not reply to one of my phone calls or e-mails. Several members of the Wildrose are farmers and actually have an understanding of farm life in Alberta. I’m not a Wildrose supporter, but they had some excellent comments in the Leg during debate of the bill.

        What’s laughable, actually embarrassing, is how the NDP rolled out Bill 6. I guess that’s what one should expect from a caucus that doesn’t have one farmer in it and out-of-province advisers.

        1. Bill 6 was not part of another bill. Do you think death threats and claims this would kill family farms were not an exaggeration?

          All the Wildrose managed to do was make farmers look stupid and violent.

          The only thing the NDP did wrong was not cleaning out the Conservative filth that infests the civil service and sabotaged the roll out of Bill 6. Jasper Ave. should have been clogged with heads rolling – but it is not too late.

  2. Great article, David, thanks for writing it.

    One other point that needed to be made is that before the passage of Bill 6, Alberta was the only province in Canada that did not offer farm workers protection. The phrase ‘Alberta is the only province that…’ is certainly one we heard a lot of during and after the Klein era.

    You have to love how the opposition can mount a well funded campaign of dis-information, then complain about the money the government spends to counter the dis-information. I am thinking about the carbon tax here. A few weeks ago (before Jan 1) Farmer B mentioned how a backhoe operator said he would be adding 10% to his invoices because of the carbon tax. For the backhoe operator to think he needed to do that, or think he could get away with it, shows how the government needed an even more extensive media campaign.

    1. I couldn’t agree more Bob….and am of the mind that what is needed is for all of us ordinary Albertans who can still think outside the neo-con box to support researchers like David….by speaking up on the response column, in our local papers, and with our friends and neighbours.

      There was a time when people would have been ashamed to appear as ill informed in public as some of these right wingers are. And that time could return, if more civil discourse, bolstered by obvious facts, became the new normal.

      The alternative may be to wait for the Trumpites to migrate north. Already there’s a survey that puts our fair province at the top for those who ‘like Trump’. Shooting from the hip, making up weird slogans like carbon $=Anal S…, being so much more fun than reading credible news or actually knowing what you’re talking about.

  3. I completely agree with Mike. Along with the fact that hundreds of top producing farms and ranches already held contacts to coverage and compensation packages that actually covered their workers and assets 24-7, the NDP bit off more than money can buy with the issues of OHS on private homes and lands. How can it be a simple matter to legislate OH&S on your privately owned assets, including your home? It’s not. This Bill 6 mandate is unorganized, illconcieved, and an infringement on the rights of property owners who happen to also have a farm business to run in their homes. We have the right to be angry and disgusted with the roll out and implications of a bill that changes every aspect of our lives, our family, our business, and our employees. Can you follow a law that even the government doesn’t understand?

    1. Typical redneck response to a human rights issue-protecting workers from injury and fair compensation and rehabilitation when a worker is injured-It’s a basic human right for all workers to have ” the right of association” as any employer has the right to join a commodity group-Get over it–

      1. Herman Plas – have you ever heard of private insurance (our family members all carry individual policies) – 24/7, not just at work !!!!! I will quote Kelsey “already held contacts to coverage and compensation packages that actually covered their workers and assets 24-7, ” Just because some look for unionized jobs and only select their work place by the benefits and coverage offered ~ does not mean the rest of the world lives by the motto: “make the job fit my wants and needs”. I’ll repeat private insurance was utilized …. gheeshhhh

      2. So your saying if I join a commodity group it protects me in some way? I’m guessing financial is what your going for, but please elaborate.

  4. payout in salaries and perks at nearly million per year for WCB board president alone, obviously makes it’s hard to see this institution as not for profit one. don’t know if there are any changes, although private insurers isn’t any better parasites and not even masking their predatory nature.
    my guess WCB if they have better cost/reimbursement rates, could be better option but after all i’m not the farmer and can be wrong in this conclusion.
    for NDP itself, doesn’t matter how important or not this issue is, Bill 6, even if being implemented brilliantly, remain very insignificant point for future election campaign. as i mentioned somewhere earlier, agro sector represent only 2.7% provincial workforce.

  5. Thank you for this. I guess blow back from the right wing should have been expected in Alberta. None of us realized how quickly their empire was going to fall. Still, the suspicions the neo-cons have fostered about government, and the reverence they have for the private sector, should not have put farm workers in the situation you describe above.

    I am from farm background, and was more than a little ashamed by the degree to which our agricultural sector seemed to think giving farm workers in Alberta what they already had everywhere else in Canada, was going to break the family farm. I also started to wonder, if the family farm hadn’t already been more than a little broken, if this was the case.

    Fear mongering is nasty politics, but it seems to work. Wish you’d research the Mad Cow fiasco Klein dragged us all through a few years ago……and expose who benefited from that. There are a few producers who know. The mostly unpublicized story of the Canadian Wheat Board and the Harper theft of same is another open secret.

    More people need to know what the open market actually does and does not do.

    1. Definition of personal insurance. 1 : insurance of human life values against the risks of death, injury, illness or against expenses incidental to the latter. 2 : insurance purchased for personal or family protection purposes as contrasted with insurance of business property or interests.
      That is the coverage personally selected before being forced to join WCB. Of course many couldn’t figure that out – expecting someone else to take care of your responsibility.

      1. Quite simply, if you want to operate a business with workers, you join WCB. Dig deep down into your well of entrepreneurial grit and determination, and get over it.

  6. First, the AFA represents a few hundred people. Hardly representative of the industry. Second, your analysis is fallacy. The “injured workers” now forced to fight their way thru the broken WCB system instead of using the short term disability, long term disability provisions of the private insurance they previously had, and which unions demand, just leave them fodder for the union provisions included in Bill 6. 23,000 farm employees lost their employment last January as per Stars Can. Bravo. Family farms are now constrained from growth as they cannot hire. That will ensure their demise. Of course, what you never report is that in other Provinces, BC as an example, small farms are given an exemption for up to 10 employees. Finally, despite a government propaganda mission to pretend that Bill 6 was only about WCB, its more financially onerous provision is OHS and unionization. The government proved their ineptness with Bill 6 when they were forced by protesters to implement amendments to the Bill. The legacy of how Bill 6 was handled is a deep distrust and animosity for the government which continues to be exacerbated by policies such as the carbon tax which has a disproportionately heavy burden on rural Albertans while the resulting caucus slush fund is directed to wards rural subsidization of urban transportation and infrastructure. That will teach those protesting farmers a lesson. Right?

  7. so after all that screaming about how bill 6 was going to scare businesses away, there are now more than twice as many ag operators (or at least twice as many registered)? incredible! just like how they all said the carbon tax would kill oilpatch jobs and now we’ve got these new pipelines going forward. i wonder if bernard the roughneck will get a job on one of the new pipelines? maybe he’ll just keep reading his rebel media scripts and tell us, “actually, these pipelines are bad for jobs since notley and trudeau approved them”. the ndp has made absolute FOOLS of the opposition (not that that’s that hard). should be smooth sailing for 2019 if they can keep this up!

    1. Spranch – All are FORCED to register, of course there will be an increase ~ they previously used personal private insurance policies. Simple concept to understand if you have a brain!

  8. The 2011 census reported 43234 farms in Alberta and 62050 operators. Of this 3629 operators are now registered so roughly 6%. I would echo what Mike said. Do you consider a 6% uptake of a government policy to be a roaring success?

    1. You need to look a little more closely at the stats. Yes, there were 43,234 operations classified as farms in 2011, however only 12,798 operations employed paid farm workers. That means two-thirds of farmers DO NOT employ people for wages, so Bill 6 is irrelevant to them.

      If the uptake so far is 3,629 that would show a lot of farms have yet to register which is not the big deal you might think because the growing season has yet to start.

      Do you understand that without Bill 6, you could be sued in civil court if one of your farm workers is injured? Not an easy thing to do, but hey if the farmer looks solvent there are lots of injury lawyers who will taken on such a case for a cut of the action. Of course private insurance is useless if the farmer has allowed some unsafe condition and that is the first thing private insurance looks for as an excuse to abandon the farmer.

      1. Interesting that a bill that is supposed to be for the benefit of farmers is irrelevant to 2/3’s of them isn’t.

        1. Not really significant – most farmers have mechanized and really do not require hired help.

          Having said that, I personally know at least one single-proprietorship farmer who took out WCB coverage years ago before Bill 6 and his farm was saved by the help he got from WCB when he was injured in a farm accident.

          The immunity from civil liability given to farmers employing people is a real gift from the NDP to the farm community. It is no surprise the private insurance industry and injury lawyers are upset at losing the business.

          1. You are not making sense. First you comment that 2/3 of farmers don’t have paid farm workers so bill 6 is irrelevant to them. Then you talk about a sole proprietorship who took out WCB years ago before bill 6. So on one hand you are saying bill 6 is of no value to farmers without paid workers and on the other you are saying that a farmer who enrolled in WCB long before the NDP government brought us bill 6 benefitted from enrolment in the WCB. What is interesting is that yes farmers did enroll in the WCB before bill 6 and what has been shown by the majority of responses to this blog is that there is much greater concern for the workers than the farmer, K. Larson I am not including you in the last comment as I am well aware that you are a farmer.

          2. Sorry Farmer B, sloppy writing, my bad. I was not saying WCB coverage had no value to 2/3 of farmers. What I was trying to say was since Bill 6 does not legally compel a farm without paid employees to purchase WCB coverage it is irrelevant to most farmers unless they chose to take WCB coverage for themselves.

            However WCB coverage still has value for those farmers. Some years ago one of my colleagues did see the value of WCB coverage and when he was injured the WCB coverage, which included extensive physiotherapy and reconstructive surgery, allowed him to save his farming career.

    2. Aren’t they breaking the law by not registering? Could they not be penalized? Finally, would penalties be good for business?

    3. The point has to be made that farms with no hired workers are not affected by Bill 6. With no workers there is no one to provide WCB coverage for. This, then, really begs the question, how many of of the 43,234 farms, or 62,050 operators, have employees?

      I taught school east of Camrose for 17 years in a farming community. I suppose some of the kids I taught had a hired hand at home, but I would hazard a guess there weren’t that many. I would love to know what percentage of farm workers are the old ‘hired hand’ on a family farm, and what percentage are employed in corporate farm factory.

    4. You neglected to mention how many of those are larger farms with $250,000 + in gross income. Those are the only ones who might have paid employees. I believe the number of those larger farms is around 7,000. A percentage of those would be extended family operations.

  9. Worth reading is the relatively new book, Farm Workers in Western Canada, edited by Shirley A. McDonald and Bob Barnetson. It makes it clear that most farm workers work on highly capitalized corporate farms, not on family farms. And the farm workers who are willing to be interviewed and identified by name despite the very real chance of reprisals by employers describe terrible treatment by often quite mean-spirited employers confident that (before the election of the NDP) they had a government in Edmonton working for them and just fine with them treating their workers as if they are slaves. Some of the farmer commentaries above which imply that farmers alone make up the farming community exemplify that erasure of the 40,000 farm labourers in Alberta from membership in that community.

  10. The Alberta government would be wise to learn from it’s previous experience with Bill 6. Yes, the opposition has said many things that were either unfair or untrue, but the whole thing was not handled well by the government either.

    At this point, it would be wise to listen to the legitimate concerns and fears of farmers and try address them. The sky hasn’t fallen, but the opposition has still painted the government with an image that they do not understand or listen to rural Albertans.

    If the NDP wants to be more than a one term government, they need to show they can listen to a diverse range of Albertans.

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