Farm workers can unionize — but don’t panic just yet

Ag minister says workers should have that right, but predicts ‘extremely low unionization rates’

It’s business as usual on Kevin Serfas’s farm after the provincial NDP government tabled a bill that will give farm workers the right to unionize.

Kevin Serfas.
photo: Supplied

“My initial response yesterday was shock and horror,” the Turin-area farmer said in an interview May 26. “But as I did a little more reading into it, I’m a bit more at ease with it.”

Bill 17 — the Fair and Family-Friendly Workplaces Act — went through first reading last month and, if passed, would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

The bill broadens employment standards and amended labour relations provisions to include paid farm workers, which would allow them the ability to unionize if they choose and to bargain collectively. Family members would be excluded from these new amendments.

While most of the bill “wasn’t really shocking,” the ability for farm workers to unionize is concerning, said Serfas, who has a mix of roughly 40 seasonal, part-time, and full-time employees.

“That being said, you go into a restaurant and the waiters and waitresses have the ability to unionize, and I don’t know how many unionized waiters I know,” he said.

“I’m not sure what the appetite is for farm workers to unionize. It’s concerning for sure. Are we selling the farm because of it? No.”

In addition to excluding family members from the Labour Relations Code, the amendments would also allow the province to appoint a public emergency tribunal to halt labour disputes and/or arbitrate agreements in cases where a strike or lockout could harm livestock or damage crops.

“From what I understand, they can strike, but if it will have impacts on livestock or crops, they would be ordered back to work,” said Serfas.

Unique workplaces

That was an important consideration when developing this new bill, said Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier.

“It was important to recognize that farms and ranches are unique workplaces. It is a business, but it’s also a way of life,” Carlier said in an interview.

“For instance, if workers did want to unionize, (we wanted to make sure) it wouldn’t put seeding or harvest or calving in jeopardy. We have introduced a way to make sure farmers and ranchers have access to a public emergency tribunal so that the tribunal can act very quickly to dispel any labour dispute to ensure that the farming operation isn’t put into jeopardy.

“That was a recommendation from the technical working group. Yes, this is a right that workers should have, but also it shouldn’t overly impede a farming operation. That’s obviously not something we want to do.”

From the outset of the consultation process, the labour relations technical working group had philosophical differences about the need for labour relations — including the ability for workers to form unions and to strike. The producers at the table were prepared to accept the labour relations act as long as it included wording to prevent strikes, but the group wasn’t able to come to a consensus on that. And when all was said and done, the group reached consensus on only half of the 10 recommendations they put forward.

Even so, the province tried to strike a fair balance between the needs of farmers and the rights of their employees, said Carlier.

“It was really important that we had that input,” he said.

It’s understandable that farmers are “a little bit anxious” about these new labour relations amendments, he added.

“I understand 100 per cent, because it’s something they’ve never even had to think about,” he said. “But it’s a right that farm workers have enjoyed for decades in our neighbours to the east in Saskatchewan, and there’s an extremely low unionization rate with farm workers right across the country.

“At the same time, I think it’s a right that people should know that they have, whether they ever exercise that right.”

Employment standards

Bill 17 also brings employment standards for farm workers in line with standards for all Alberta workers.

“We’re in a position now where we have an opportunity to introduce some basic workers’ rights to farm workers that other farm workers across the country have enjoyed for decades,” said Carlier.

“This isn’t a bad thing. It’s going to be an opportunity for people to have rights that they’ve never had before.”

While the revised Employment Standards Code will only apply to paid farm workers — not family members — it also covers young employees. However, children doing chores or taking part in activities such as 4-H; casual work, branding parties; helping neighbours and friends; or taking part in “recreational activities” (such as hunting on farmland) will also not be affected.

For paid farm workers, the new bill also lays out standards for general holiday pay, which means employees who work a general holiday get straight time pay plus either general pay at a rate of 4.2 per cent of the previous four weeks’ wages, or an alternate day off as agreed to by the employer and employee.

Vacation and vacation pay entitlements in the Employment Standards Code would also apply for paid farm workers, but would be calculated on total wages, not on a maximum of 44 hours per week. Four days of rest for paid farm employees would be provided for every 28 days at the employer’s discretion if the employer and employee can’t agree on dates.

Existing provincial standards on hours of work and overtime would not apply for farm workers, the province said; minimum wage rules would apply.

“I don’t think that some of what they’re trying to push through is terrible,” said Serfas. “I think workers should have those rights. We’ve never really thought any differently.”

On Serfas’s large-scale cropping and feedlot operation, many of these employment standards have been standard practice for years, including vacation pay and bereavement leave.

“It’s very hard to replace good people,” he said. “You’re far better off treating the good employees that you have fairly and giving them no reason to want to leave, which is why we adopted a lot of these things long before they became law.

“It might cost a little bit more money, but a little bit of money spent up front usually saves you a lot of money on the back end. Things like that will help a lot of these employees realize, ‘We don’t need to form a union. We’re getting treated well. We’re getting treated fairly.’”

— With staff files

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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