He made 25 stops across the province, met with more than 1,000 farmers, put over 8,000 kilometres on the truck and drank countless cups of coffee.
Devin Dreeshen has been a busy man during his first summer as provincial agriculture minister and he’s promising a replacement workplace safety law is introduced this fall.
“What we’ve heard across the province is that the replacement of Bill 6 should have some common sense attached to it,” Dreeshen said in an interview.
“As a minister, it was a great experience for me to go out and talk directly with farmers and get that practical, on-the-ground input.”
A “good cross-section” of farm operators and workers attended the summer-long consultation process, which kicked off on July 25 in Camrose and averaged about 30 participants per session. (The consultation also included an online component, which drew about 1,200 comments.)
“It was a really good mix of the agriculture sector,” said Dreeshen, who launched the consultation to address industry concerns about how the NDP government’s farm safety legislation — commonly referred to as Bill 6 — was implemented.
“It will be reflective of what we heard throughout these consultations.”
And the first thing on the chopping block is likely to be mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage.
“That choice in insurance — being able to choose to use either WCB or private insurance — was something that we heard at a lot of stops,” said Dreeshen.
Farmers were also turned off by all the red tape when it comes to occupational health and safety rules, he added.
“We had heard stories of older farmers not wanting to hire people because of Bill 6 and all the added regulations that would come with it.”
But Round Hill-area farmer Humphrey Banack has a different concern — attracting farm labour to an industry that’s hemorrhaging workers year after year.
“Farmers as a whole are going to support a lot of what the Conservative government will be bringing forward, and the Alberta Federation of Agriculture does, too,” said Banack, who sits on AFA board.
“But we do have some concerns around keeping the same level of compensation for workers.”
Canada’s agriculture industry is currently facing a shortage of more than 16,500 workers, and that number is expected to soar to 123,000 by 2029. With only one in five Canadians living in rural areas, farmers will need to look further afield to find farm workers, including in urban centres.
“Attracting workers is always tough, and depending on the commodity, it’s also becoming a specialized workforce as well with all the equipment that’s coming out. That’s an ongoing concern and something we’ve heard through this,” said Dreeshen.
“That’s a concern that we have, and we are working on ways that we can increase the amount of labour force that we have on farms.”
But that could be a tough sell, said Banack, who attended the Camrose session in July.
“We’re going to be short of workers in the future. We’re short today,” said Banack. “And if we don’t have a good safety record, it’s not going to help us attract people into the industry to work for us.
“If my son were going to work for an industry where there was no workers coverage or safety protocols in place, I would council him heavily to stay the hell away.”
While the United Conservative government didn’t track the breakdown between farmer and farm worker feedback, Banack hopes worker voices were also heard during the consultation process.
“The NDP did work very hard to make sure employees were represented around the table,” said Banack, who participated in one of the NDP’s occupational health and safety technical working groups.
“It’s very important for us to understand we have to provide a good atmosphere to work in. You can’t expect someone to work 18 hours a day.”
Farm working conditions are also slowly becoming part of winning consumer acceptance — something known as “social licence.”
The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef has set “promoting farm safety and responsible working conditions” as one of 10 goals in its National Beef Sustainability Assessment and Strategy. And canola growers looking to sell into the EU biofuel market must first become certified, and one of the factors assessed during the certification process is employment conditions. (This includes not having discriminatory hiring practices and not preventing workers from forming or joining a union.)
“It’s something that could get built into market access in the future,” said Banack. “If we’re taking advantage of our employees, that may very well be a detriment getting into some of these markets.”
The new workplace safety legislation is expected to be introduced later this fall and passed before the year is out.
“At the end of the day, we want a piece of legislation that works with farmers and not against them,” said Dreeshen, adding he’s planning for a larger education component rather than “prescriptive regulations and a one-size-fits-all” approach.
That would be welcome after the NDP’s botched introduction of Bill 6, said Banack.
“I would hope the UCP government will draft the regulations, put them out there, and say, ‘This is what we’re proposing to make into legislation. Let’s have some comment on it.’ That would be a much more agreeable process to go through.”
But ultimately, any changes should keep farmer and farm worker safety at the forefront, he added.
“That’s our position at AFA — any of these changes still have to hold agriculture to a high enough standard. We still have to work safely,” said Banack.
“Farmers want their workers to go home safe at the end of the day.”