Alta. farm bill applies to paid workers only, minister says

UPDATED, Nov. 28, 2015 — New legislation applying Alberta’s rules on workplace standards and workers’ compensation to farm workers is meant for farms’ paid employees — not for family members or neighbours helping out on family farms.

The province’s labour minister has said as much after stormy early going in the government’s consultations on Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.

“I want to assure those families that Bill 6 does nothing more than bring Alberta’s safety standards on farm and ranching operations in line with every other province in Canada,” Lori Sigurdson said in a statement late Friday.

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Neighbours and relatives will continue to pitch in on farms when needs be, she said Friday, describing their role as one of the “customary parts of farm life (which) will go on as before.”

Sigurdson’s statement runs up against statements from her ministry on its website, which say changes to the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act would apply “regardless of whether or not the worker is paid (for example, neighbours who volunteer their help) and regardless of the worker’s age.”

The provincial OHS Code in other covered sectors already includes work by “volunteers and other unpaid persons.”

Bill 6’s planned OHS amendments, while still subject to “ongoing consultation around technical standards for the OHS Code,” would also cover “children of farmers and ranchers who are helping out on the commercial operations of the farm,” the ministry said.

Bill 6 passed first reading in the provincial legislature Nov. 17. The government moved Wednesday to adjourn debate on the bill, rather than vote on second reading.

The bill would have current OHS Act exemptions for farm workers lifted effective Jan. 1, 2016, with occupational health and safety code technical requirements to take effect in 2017.

Workers’ compensation requirements for farm workers would also take effect Jan. 1, 2016, while aspects relating to labour relations and employment standards code would take effect in spring 2016.

The regulations of the safety codes “will be developed while working with farmers,” Sigurdson said in the legislature Thursday — the same day as the province’s first public meeting on Bill 6, in Grande Prairie.

For example, the ministry said on its website, Alberta farms today are exempt from employment standards for employment of youth, such as those for parental consent, supervision, limited approved occupations and restricted work hours. The consultations are expected to look at “how we can best meet international labour standards and ensure youth workers on farms and ranches are adequately protected.”

The Alberta Wheat Commission on Thursday urged the province to make sure to provide the farm sector with more chances for dialogue before the detailed regulations are set.

The fact that some of the province’s town hall meetings are “already fully subscribed” suggests more dialogue is needed, AWC chairman Kent Erickson said in a release. “It is critical that we have input into the regulations and how they are applied.”

Eight more meetings are scheduled between Dec. 1 and 14, but available seats remain only for the Dec. 14 meeting in Athabasca.

Shaye Anderson, the NDP MLA for Leduc-Beaumont, said in the legislature Thursday that his constituents agree farm and ranch workers’ safety needs to be protected, but “are deeply concerned that changes could hurt their family farm and affect their way of life.”

Anderson said he’d also heard criticisms that the government “is moving forward too quickly and… there is a lot of misinformation that is fuelling this opinion.”

The most frequently-heard concern with Bill 6, Sigurdson said in Friday’s statement, relates to “what the legislation means for family, friends and neighbours who pitch in on the farm.”

Farm youth, she said, “will continue to make their communities proud in their local 4-H program, just as they do in every other province” and farmers’ neighbours and relatives “will continue to help each other out in times of need, just as they do in every other province.

“These customary parts of farm life will go on as before, while enhancing protections for employees.”

Bill 6, she said, gives the province the “flexibility” to set up “common-sense regulations to achieve this goal.”

In the meantime, Sigurdson said, under the legislation, “a paid farmworker who is directed to do something dangerous can say no, just like other workers in Alberta and Canada. And if they are hurt or killed at work, they or their family can be compensated, just like other workers in Alberta and Canada.”

The workers’ compensation component, she said, would also protect farm operators. In previous cases when a farm worker has died on the job, “the worker’s family has no recourse but to sue that farmer, and then that farmer often will lose their farm.”

Legal protections of farm and ranch employees and preservation of family farm traditions are “complementary goals” in Bill 6, she said.

Bill 6, she said, doesn’t call for “one-size-fits-all legislation that would force farms and ranches to follow rules meant for a vastly different industry” — hence the current consultations, which she said are a “key component of how changes will happen if the bill passes.” — AGCanada.com Network

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