The Alberta government is taking on the contentious issue of farm safety by cochairing a new council charged with bringing government and industry together in the name of improved farm safety.
The government on Mar. 14 announced the Farm Safety Advisory Committee will consist of 15 members who will put their heads together on ways to reduce injuries on farms and ranches.
Devin Yeager, a national union representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), doesn’t believe the committee’s mandate will encompass including farm workers in mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage, but he says it’s a start.
“It’s not just the WCB, it’s the Employment Standards Act, it’s the Occupational Health and Safety (Act),” said Yeager, who was named as one of the committee’s members.
“It’s a step in the right direction. They’re showing that this is a serious matter. We at UFCW are a strong proponent of making sure that everyone is covered and getting the laws changed. We were actively involved in getting the Ontario laws changed in the ‘90s, we launched a legal challenge in Ontario and in the end, Ontario changed the laws to include farm workers under health and safety legislation,” Yeager said. “We’re still actively pursuing and still very interested in having the laws changed, but if education is to be the government’s position, then we’re very happy to have a seat at the table.”
The task force will be co-chaired by Jason Krips, assistant deputy minister of Industry Development and Food Safety and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and also by Page Stuart, general manager for Highland Feeders Limited.
Krips wouldn’t provide any insight as to whether the council’s mandate will go beyond educational recommendations to include potential legislative suggestions, such as enveloping farm workers into acts such as the WCB.
“I wouldn’t want to pre-empt where the council will provide its advice. What we felt was important is to get a cross-section of producers, industry and labour organizations together on a council to provide open, frank dialogue and discussions for the ministers’ consideration,” Krips said.
The matter of whether farm workers should be entitled to the same legislative protections as other Alberta workers is a thorny issue. Many operations carry private insurance for accidents, and others participate in WCB voluntarily. Concerns over cost plague producers and operators who fear a heavier financial burden could turn tight margins into deficits. On the flip side, there are worker deaths every year in Alberta – in 2009, 13 people died on farm sites, including one child.
“No one that is advocating for change is looking to hurt the family farmers. Unfortunately what has happened in the last number of years is the majority of farms now are large corporate farms. And those are the ones we are looking at getting the legislation to cover. There are other provinces with exemptions for farms that have under a certain amount of hired employees,” said Yeager, adding that migrant workers are also under-represented on large, corporate farms.
“Some of these farms are hiring hundreds of workers, and they’re there for the growing season, but there are no laws to protect them. The small family farms are not on our radar – it’s the large corporate farms that are able to do pretty much whatever they want.”
The council’s first meeting is expected to be held in the near future and the timeline is tight. Krips is optimistic the group will have something to present to the government within six months.
“The work will include developing a farm safety action plan, which will outline the requirements to achieve and enhance farm safety and education, provide input into the strategic direction of farm safety and education training in Alberta, advocating for an increased farm safety implementation on-farm, and very much as important, acting as safety ambassadors within the agriculture industry,” Krips said.
Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers (ABP), says the organization lends its full support to the council, and its mandate.
“It is a contentious issue and we support how government and industry is going forward,” Smith said, adding that ABP prefers effective education initiatives over potentially costly legislation that wouldn’t necessarily increase farm worker safety.
The working group was formed in response to recommendations arising from consultations held in 2009 and 2010 with more than 20 stakeholder groups representing more than 50,000 producers.
“The council brings together individuals from varied backgrounds, who are known and respected in their field, and have a demonstrated commitment to farm safety,” said Jack Hayden, minister of agriculture and rural development. “I know this well-rounded group will help us make significant progress toward the goal of reducing farm injuries without increasing the regulatory and financial burden for producers.”
UFCW UNION REP