Battle lines drawn on allowing farm workers to unionize

There’s agreement on issues such as overtime and exempting families from the labour code, but prospect of unionization is a flashpoint

Concerns about unions and how families would be affected sparked Bill 6 protests, like this one at the legislature, across Alberta a year ago. A working group has unanimously recommended families be largely exempt, but the labour relations committee was deeply split over the right to unionize and strike.
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Producers remain at odds with the NDP government’s plan to include the right to unionize — and to go on strike — as part of its workplace safety legislation for farms and ranches.

Gord Winkel
Gord Winkel photo: Supplied

“In some areas, we did see some movement and we did get to resolutions,” said Gord Winkel, interim executive director of the Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition (AgCoalition).

“In other areas, it was clearly not acceptable to the industry to move forward with certain things.

“Fortunately, the process allowed for that, and we were able to show that there was a lack of consensus and basically make the agriculture sector’s intent known.”

Six technical committees (called tables) composed of farmers, union reps, safety experts, and others have been working since June to develop recommendations for employment standards, labour relations, and occupational health and safety regulations.

One of the biggest challenges has been finding common ground between producers and other committee members, said Winkel, who is also chair and industrial professor of engineering safety and risk management at the University of Alberta.

“A lot of folks don’t understand agriculture,” he said, adding that as “understanding became stronger, those tables began to move forward in a better way.”

Right to strike

But in the case of the labour relations group, it was more of a case of agreeing to disagree.

There was a philosophical split right from the start between those in agriculture and those who believe in the right to unionize and to strike.

Mark Chambers
Mark Chambers photo: Supplied

“Bill 6 is supposed to be enhancing farm safety, and labour relations doesn’t have anything to do with farm safety,” said Mark Chambers, a committee member who is senior production manager with Sunterra Farms. “It created a bone of contention and it was challenging to work through some of that stuff.”

The two union officials and labour lawyer knew the provincial Labour Relations Code “inside out” but nothing about farming, he said.

“They were completely ignorant to how agriculture works, so we had to correct that and do a presentation on how agriculture actually works to get them educated,” said Chambers. “It got a little heated at times.”

Going into the first meeting, Chambers expected the group would be consulted on the government’s proposed regulations, but he quickly learned that “the government already decided that the labour relations act was going to be enacted for agriculture, and our goal was to look through the act and see if we could live with it.”

That set the stage for a rocky process.

“To us, it wasn’t really a consultation, but that follows the trend of the government on how it has approached Bill 6,” said Chambers.

When all was said and done, the group reached consensus on only half of the 10 recommendations it put forward.

“One of our recommendations was to leave (the code) the way it is, and we couldn’t reach consensus on that,” said Chambers. “Producers say it’s been working fine and that we should leave it well alone, whereas the union reps and the labour lawyer said it shouldn’t be.

“There was no way we were going to reach consensus on that, but we wanted to make sure it was on the record to show everyone what we could not agree on.”

The producers at the table were prepared to accept the Labour Relations Code as long as it included wording to prevent strikes, but the group wasn’t able to come to a consensus on that either.

“From a farmer’s perspective, we can’t allow unions to disrupt production with strikes in critical times when you’re trying to put crops in the ground, spray crops, harvest crops, or if you’re looking after animals,” said Chambers. “Something needs to be in the act to ensure that strikes do not occur if it’s going to produce irreversible damage to livestock or crops.”

But Chambers said he still hopes that the government will look at the recommendations and realize “there’s a uniqueness in agriculture that there’s not in other industries.”

“I hope they say, ‘This is real. We understand the concerns of the producers and maybe we should revisit the labour relations act,’” he said.

“But at the end of the day, the government can still do as it wishes. It could turn around and say that the act is going to stay the way it is.”

Overtime and family

Employment standards — regulations on hours of work, overtime, and family members working on the farm — was the other big issue during the protests against Bill 6 (which became the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act).

But things went surprisingly well at that table.

Joel Beatson
Joel Beatson

“It was a good process,” said Joel Beatson, executive director of Landscape Alberta. “We really got down to the practical details about why agriculture was unique and why it needed to be different, and we got through it really quickly.”

The 12-person table — 10 of whom had “some direct connection to agriculture” — held two-day meetings in June and August and came to a consensus on all 13 recommendations made to the province.

“The exciting part for us was that all of the recommendations were made with consensus. There was no dissenting view,” said Beatson. “All 12 people at the table said, ‘Yes, we think that is an acceptable way to handle employment standards.’

“I didn’t expect it to end quite that quickly, but I’m happy it did.”

For the most part, the group decided existing employment standards would work for farmers with minor modifications.

“There were a lot of employment standards that already applied to farms,” said Beatson. Producers might have been unaware that they applied to farms, but they did exist.

“We went through the ones that farmers were exempt from previously, and a lot of those exemptions were maintained.”

One potential minefield was hours of work and overtime. Under the Employment Standards Code, employees can’t work more than 12 hours a day, with 30 minutes of rest in every shift longer than five hours. Employees are also entitled to overtime pay after working 44 hours in a week, as well as a certain number of days off depending on how many days they’ve worked in a row.

That wasn’t going to work for agriculture, said Beatson.

“There were some really good ideas in terms of practical solutions for hours of work in a month,” he said. “No one could support that an employee would work every single day of the month without a day off, and the standards already handle that pretty well.”

The table’s recommendation was that farms and ranches be exempt from rules on hours of work and overtime, but recommended farm workers get a minimum of four days off for every 28 days worked. The group also recommended that the province maintain the family exemption in the Dec. 9 amendment to Bill 6, which exempted any blood relative up to first cousin from the requirements of the act. That includes any children doing chores on the farm, Beatson added.

“We have to continue to separate family from someone outside the family who is hired help on the farm,” he said. “For children, if they’re family, they’re included in the family exemption. And if they’re employees, there will be different rules involved.”

For workers under the age of 16, the work “must have no negative impact on schooling, parental consent must be obtained, and the work must not be detrimental to the health, education, or welfare of the youth.” Workers who are 12 and 13 would be limited to 20 hours of work per week.

“Children who are 12 or 13 or 14 would have lighter-duty work than 16-year-olds, which is pretty much what exists on a farm already,” said Beatson.

Children under the age of 12 were not addressed in the recommendations because it’s very rare for children that young to be hired as employees.

“The consensus was that people under 12 weren’t being hired, outside of family.”

Administration, particularly enforcement, was another key point of contention for farmers, but again, the group felt the current standard will work for agriculture, as long as it includes a “strong education component.”

“Alberta Labour did clarify right away that all of the enforcement is complaint based and complaint driven, and because it’s complaint driven, a minor infraction isn’t going to mean major penalties,” said Beatson.

“Everyone was pretty clear that this wasn’t about being 100 per cent compliant 100 per cent of the time. This was about making sure there were fair standards out there to work from.”

Next step

The four other panels — all dealing with different aspects of occupational health and safety — have yet to finalize their recommendations, which are due by the end of the year.

Once those recommendations are complete, Winkel hopes that the Alberta government will act quickly on developing the final regulations — and won’t disregard producers’ input.

“By getting together to basically formulate our positions and make it part of the public record, we’ve done our sector a service because people know what we’re about and where we stand,” he said.

“Now, what we would like very much is for the government to respect those inputs and use them to govern its approach moving forward.

“It would be my expectation that it would act on this very good feedback.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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