There were no surprises when the United Conservative government unveiled its new farm workplace safety legislation — and that’s one of the things that farm leaders like about it.
“It’s making farming easier,” Alberta Canola chair John Guelly said in contrasting the new legislation with the contentious version brought in by the previous NDP government. “Everybody was scared to go across the road.”
As promised, the legislation — dubbed the Farm Freedom and Safety Act — will allow farm employers to purchase private insurance (instead of having to have a Workers Compensation Board of Alberta account) and removes the right of farm workers to unionize or bargain collectively.
And operations with five or fewer non-family employees — about three-quarters of the province’s 41,000 farms — won’t have to buy insurance at all. Nor will they have to adhere to employment standards such as overtime and restrictions on what work that youth can do on farms.
The new rules went over well with those farmers who made the trip to Tri M Farms near Bon Accord to hear Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen unveil the legislation.
“It will lower stress levels and give more freedom,” said Kevin Bender, a regional rep with Alberta Wheat and the group’s former chair.
“For our sake, we didn’t want to hire people because we had all this red tape to deal with.”
That view was echoed by Guelly.
“We can think about expanding again without a whole bunch of hoops,” he said.
Dreeshen said the new Occupational Health and Safety Code will also be simpler and include an overarching outcome base to ensure safe work on farms, rather than “being prescriptive, detail specific of certain types of work.”
“Let there be best standards and practices that farmers themselves can develop,” he said. “That allows us to be under the OHS Act in a practical and common-sense way.”
But the minister also spoke about the need for providing more farm workplace safety education. The Labour Ministry will be spending $500,000 on education for farm workers and farmers to educate them about insurance coverage options, he said.
There’s definitely a need for that sort of effort, said Guelly.
“There’s a lot of education that needs to be done,” he said. “We’re still for education over legislation. We still have improvements to make on the farm.”
The previous government sparked an uproar in Alberta’s ag community with its farm workplace legislation four years ago. The passage of Bill 6 was crafted with virtually no input from farm groups and prompted them to band together in an unprecedented coalition.
The groups not only fought to ensure the regulations and rules flowing out of that bill (the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act) would be sensible and practical, but also led to the creation of AgSafe Alberta. The non-profit provides educational resources on workplace safety for producers.
“Education plays an important role in the future,” said Tom Steve, general manager of Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.
“All the commissions (livestock and crops) are represented on AgSafe. This represents the route we want to go — less regulation and more education to build a culture of farm safety in Alberta.”
Although numerous representatives from farm groups put in a lot of work into the regulations implemented by the previous government, having new legislation offers “a new start,” said Steve.
“Is the bill perfect? We don’t know,” he said. “The good thing is we have input and the ear of the government. Under the previous government, it was more dictated to us, and we were to respond.
“The big difference is that we feel we’re heard.”
The government hosted 25 consultations across the province this summer, hearing from more than 1,000 producers. It also received more than 1,200 responses to an online survey.
Other details of the legislation include:
- In determining the number of employees, farms don’t count family members and employees who work less than six months consecutively.
- Operations with six or more employees must offer holiday pay (4.2 per cent of wages) and provide four days of rest for every 28 days of work.
- The mandatory insurance required for larger operations must cover accidental death and dismemberment, and bodily insurance, including sickness. Employees still have the right to refuse unsafe work.
- The definition for private worker insurance will be developed in regulations by the Labour Ministry but won’t be enshrined in the legislation.
- Greenhouses, nurseries, mushroom farms and sod farms will now be classified as farms, and can use farm- and ranch-specific rules. Cannabis operations are still not classified as farms.