Farm Workers Win Battle for Equality

Johnnie Bachusky, Mountain View Gazette; 24 November 2015
 
It has been 12 long years for Eric Musekamp fighting for better legislative protection for the disenfranchised Alberta farm worker.
 
But today Musekamp is celebrating. Last week the provincial government introduced Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, which is being touted by the NDP government as the first labour and safety law in Alberta history that gives the province’s 60,000 farm and ranch workers the same basic legislative protection as other workers in the province have had for decades.
 
Earlier this year, Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported it investigated 25 deaths related to agriculture in 2014, of which 20 were owners, operators, owners’ family members or employees of their respective farms.
 
From 1997 to 2014, there have been 306 farm-related fatalities in Alberta. Children accounted for 19 per cent of those deaths, according to the Farm Safety Centre, a non-profit organization that promotes safe agricultural practices in rural Alberta.
 
Beginning Jan. 1, farm workers will finally be covered under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, which was first implemented in 1976. On the same day, it will be mandatory that all farm and ranch workers receive Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) coverage, which was given to most other workers in the province almost a century ago.
 
By next spring the government is also calling for farm workers to be included in the employment standards and labour relations codes. This will give farm and rancher workers the right to join unions and bargain for wages.
 
Farm and ranch workers will also have equitable legislative guidelines for minimum wage, overtime and vacation pay.
There will also be employment standards for minimum age and hours of work.
 
As well, Bill 6 will give workers the right to refuse unsafe work without fear of being fired. Provincial investigators will also be able to enter a farm or ranch site to do safety inspections, impose penalties and investigate serious incidents.
 
“I initially set out with the farm workers union to get equality of law for farm workers, and the proposals put forward by the government precisely do that,” said Musekamp, who with his wife Darlene Dunlop, co-founded the Farmworkers Union of Alberta.
 
“They appear to be very much directed by the Charter, which has always been our bottom line premise that these exclusions violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
 
However, the Opposition Wildrose party responded to Bill 6 with concerns it was brought forward too quickly and without having proper consultation with farmers.
 
The Opposition party said in a news release it could lead to “bad outcomes” for the province’s agricultural industry.
 
“No one in Alberta cares more about safety on family farms than the moms and dads who run them. They are the experts and they need to have their voices heard on these important changes happening under sudden timelines,” said MLA Grant Hunter, the Wildrose’s shadow minister for jobs, skills, training and labour.
 
“The NDP need to put this bill to committee instead of pushing it through in less than 45 days so Albertans, farmers, and industry are properly consulted.”
 
However, proponents for basic labour rights for farm workers counter there has been ample consultation with stakeholders over the past 15 years with successive past Progressive Conservative governments, and more recently, the current NDP regime.
 
“There will, no doubt, be opposition to this legislation. There will be excuses, ideological alarms, claims that this will forever alter our way of life or doom our industry, and cries that the government is doing too much, too fast,” said Alberta Liberal Party Leader Dr. David Swann, who has been a longtime advocate for change on behalf of the province’s farm workers.
 
“Opposition to this bill is opposition to a farm worker being able to refuse unsafe work, it is opposition to any minimum wage whatsoever for farm workers, it is opposition to restrictions on child labour, it is opposition to requiring proper safety training before doing a new task, and it is opposition to the protections of WCB for farm workers and farm owners.”
 
In the meantime, the fine details of Bill 6 will go through a public consultation process over the next 18 months and Musekamp wants the provincial government to add a training component to Bill 6, modelled after B.C.’s Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association (FARSHA), a provincewide organization that promotes safety and health in that province’s agricultural industry.
 
He said his group’s “direct” proposal to the provincial government is that the Alberta Federation of Agriculture (AFA) should be the primary voice for producers, and that AFA members, along with farm workers, sit on the board of directors of a new training society to ensure there is full compliance with Bill 6.
 
“Our position is that WCB is a valuable risk management tool that provides protection over and above anything else currently available for farm workers and farm owners,” said AFA president Lynn Jacobson in a news release in response to Bill 6.
 
“On the OHS side, we need to understand the implications of new technical requirements to which farmers will be subject. The relationship between WCB, OHS and farm safety also needs study. We’d like to see a gradual implementation of the OHS changes, supported by extensive producer education and awareness.”
 
The public will have an opportunity to provide input into Bill 6 through a series of town hall meetings this fall from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7. There will be a town hall meeting for Red Deer-area citizens on Dec. 1.
 
The government is also inviting Albertans to participate in an online survey, which is accessible on the Government of Alberta website. For more information on the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act and proposed changes and timelines, or to provide your input online, visit work.alberta.ca/farmandranch.
 
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