Why fight the battle against safety regs for farm workers?

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A recent urban media and opposition party political exercise might all have been a coincidence, since it was close to the self-declared “Farm Worker Day.” But it seemed like a co-ordinated effort to embarrass the premier to get her to take action on one of her promises.

It all had to do with an old issue — including farm workers under mandatory OHS standards, just like all other workers in Alberta. It’s a promise the premier first made when she was running for the PC Party leadership. However since then that promise seems to have been quietly buried. Such burials are not an unusual occurrence with politicians once they get into power and reality sets in.

To set the scene, a provocative front-page headline in the Calgary Herald had former Liberal opposition leader, MLA David Swann, demanding a potato boycott because child labour remains unregulated in Alberta. He later mentioned that he had heard about child labour on potato farms, but he had no evidence. In a followup story he recanted somewhat stating that it was not his intent to destroy the livelihood of Alberta potato farmers through a boycott. All that showed was a serious disconnect the urban media and city politicians have as to how agriculture works.

But the goal here was the alarming headline, not the real story. By coincidence of course, the day after the child labour scare headline, the Calgary Herald published an editorial criticizing the premier for not delivering on her farm worker rights promise.

Government response was rather muted, stating that they don’t want to interfere with the operation of the family farm and that the ministers involved will be meeting later to discuss the matter. It would seem government bureaucrats and lobbying by producer groups has been successful in thwarting the premier’s promise. It does cause one to ponder whether this issue is worth it in the bigger scheme of things.

Firstly, look at the damage done to the image of agriculture by just one headline — “Potato Boycott” — “Child Labour on Farms.” It doesn’t matter whether the headline is spurious, duplicitous or misleading. It’s a negative image in the eyes of the consumer. Producer groups spend countless thousands of dollars trying to improve the image of agriculture just to see it all blown out of the water by one negative headline. Would these not be better headlines for the image of agriculture in Alberta? “Alberta has the most progressive Farm Worker Rights in Canada” or “Children are Safe on Alberta Farms”

Those headlines could be a reality if all the time, energy, money and lobbying spent on thwarting progress on farm worker rights had instead been spent on being in the forefront of implementing the issue.

Bite the bullet

How can Alberta redeem itself on this issue?

  • Government needs to bite the bullet and state that Alberta will be joining the rest of Canada in having farm worker rights and specific labour legislation — including mandatory OHS and WCB.
  • Government then needs to challenge each commodity producer group to come up with its specific recommendations on how OHS, WCB and other labour legislation should be applied to their producers.
  • Government needs to study how farm worker rights are working in other provinces, with the intent to take the best programs and make them better for Alberta.
  • Once government has learned what is happening in other provinces it needs to sit down with each producer group to negotiate a program that is specific to each sector. That needs to be done as a partnership. Alberta has taken that approach many times and it works. Arbitrary government compulsion needs to be taken out of the issue.
  • Phase in implementation over time starting with the size of operations. For instance start with commercial operations with over 20 employees — they are already used to the process and paperwork as now demanded by their insurance companies.
  • Include in the program not just farm workers but owners, operators, spouses and any of their children that may be legally working on the ag operation. Such inclusion would be real progress and the first in the country. The loss or injury of a farm owner or main operator can be devastating to the future of any operation. Making a program more inclusive makes it look less like a burden.
  • Government needs to get the statistics right and fair. Accidents, deaths and injuries to children on farms are not all related to working on farms. The stats have to be more specific, and they need to better reflect what happens on Hutterite colonies. Those good folks are major players in ag production and there needs to be a better handle on who is doing what and how it will be done better and safer.

Sometimes governments see the light and sometimes they are obstinate — I hope this matter will not need divine intervention to see the common sense and fairness. After all, there are human lives involved.

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