It’s Time For Farm Labour To Be Treated Equally With Other Sectors

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Recently Alberta Agriculture announced a new $715,000 grant program for farm safety, part of which will be given to local ag societies for safety promotion. That’s an admirable step by the government as education is always valuable.

The fear with this grant is that it will be used as an excuse by the Alberta government to derail any further progress in bringing farm workers under the provincial labour code and occupational health and safety rules. That concern has been expressed by the farm workers union. They could be right as neither the ag minister nor the labour minister have made any comments about any future labour rights for farm workers under provincial legislation.

It’s been almost exactly a year since a provincial court judge reviewing the tragic Chandler case recommended that the Alberta government bring farm workers into the existing labour legislation to make them equal to workers in other sectors. The former ag minister stated that he would be reviewing the recommendations and would consult with the industry. Nothing significant has arisen from those deliberations. Perhaps the new minister is ruminating on the matter and will make some decision soon.

Other provinces have placed farm workers under provincial labour and safety legislation. There is a message in that. The other provinces can’t all be wrong and Alberta right on this matter. It should be noted that the agriculture industry has not collapsed in those other provinces because they brought their farm workers into the mainstream of labour regulations.

There isn’t much of an excuse not to bring in workers who toil as full-time employees on large commercial operations under provincial

} A grant for ag societies is fine, but shouldn’t be the end to farm safety issue

labour legislation. They are working for wages in an employer/employee situation, at times under dangerous conditions. Large feedlot and other operations recognized that situation a long time ago and acquired private insurance to address workplace safety concerns. However, the threat of lawsuits for accidents probably forced owners into taking that step. I also suspect lending institutions are also demanding that borrowers have proper insurance coverage on large operations.

Is the assumption that somehow family labour is less valuable than hired labour?

I see no reason why the legislation can’t be extended to all agriculture operations that employ full-time workers, particularly if they are not family members. It should be noted that the Workers Compensation Board has voluntary programs available.

Family less valuable?

The industry excuse against a mandatory program is that agriculture is unique in that much of the farm and ranch work is done by family members. That is true, but is the assumption that somehow family labour is less valuable than hired labour? Yes, they labour under the perception that they are contributing to the economic well-being of the family farm and are somehow rewarded in other ways. Be that as it may, it in a way diminishes the value of family labour, particularly that of older members whose contribution can be significant.

But consider this – what happens now when a family member, particularly the main operator, gets injured or disabled doing farm work? Unless there is insurance in place, it can be catastrophic to the farm operation or the member. If the labour code was further extended to cover all farm labour including that of the owner and family members, it could provide a safety net to protect the family farm and its members from financial ruin and provide some security in the case of long-term disability.

Sure, coverage that extensive brings a whole new nightmare of rules and paperwork. Inevitably government busybodies will want to establish inspections and working conditions. That’s what scares the ag industry. It’s hard enough as it is to make a living on the farm without bureaucrats enforcing new rules and creating new costs to stay in business. That’s a fair-enough concern. Perhaps the government could look at some sort of subsidy or tax incentive to smooth participation. Perhaps a program could be created under the auspices of Agriculture Financial Services Corporation rather than the labour department, which has less understanding of agriculture.

The alternative to do nothing is not all that attractive anymore. People continue to die and get injured doing farm and ranch work, either as paid workers or family members. This continuous reality creates endless physical, emotional and financial devastation. Education and wishful thinking will not change that reality. Alberta should be able to deal with this situation better. It would seem that perhaps those opposed to change are those that never suffered a financial loss or physical disability due to a farm accident.

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