Farmworker fight continues for AFL

Groups agitating for extension of the province's occupational health and safety laws to protect farm workers are again attempting to push the contentious issue to the fore in Alberta.

Earlier this month, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) called on Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk to yield to pressure to include paid agricultural employees under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers' Compensation Act. Currently in Alberta, agricultural employers are exempt from labour laws that require other industry sectors to provide employees health and safety coverage.

"It's not just farms and ranches, it's actually the entire agricultural sector that is exempt from basic workplace health and safety rules," said AFL president Gil McGowan, who represents 140,000 workers in Alberta. "If you work in a feedlot, if you work in a feedmill, if you work in a grain elevator, you're also considered an agricultural worker and exempt from basic health and safety, which I think is an important point, because it might triple the amount of people covered by the exemption."

Alberta's continuing policy to exempt the agricultural industry is a black mark on the province in comparison with other jurisdictions, according to McGowan.

"We think that the provincial government's ongoing exemption of farm workers from coverage under basic workplace health and safety is an embarrassment and a relic from the past, and even worse it puts agricultural workers at unnecessary risk of injury and fatality. Alberta is alone in denying agricultural workers basic protections under the law. "

The AFL was joined in lobbying the government and Minister Lukaszuk on the issue by various other labour and community organizations, as well as the Liberals and New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley.

"The United Food and Commercial Workers did as well, which is a union which represents agricultural workers, not here in Alberta, but in other provinces," said McGowan. "And the only reason they don't represent agricultural workers here in Alberta is because in addition to being exempt from the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which includes the Workers' Compensation Act, agricultural workers in Alberta are also exempt from the Employment Standards Code, which covers basic workplace conditions, and they're also exempt from the Labour Relations Code, which covers unionized workplaces, which means that agricultural workers don't have the right to join or form a union."

McGowan said it is hard to fathom why the government continues to push back against support for reform on the issue.

"If you look at injury rates and fatality rates, it's clear that agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the province. And we think that is at least partly as a result of the fact that agricultural workplaces are not covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act."

In McGowan's opinion, there are at least two discernible reasons the provincial government is resisting extending health and safety legislation to paid agricultural workers, none of which have the workers' best interests at heart.

"On the ideological side, this is a government that is reluctant to regulate even when the record is clear that regulation that workplaces got safer in Alberta and Canada when governments finally agreed to bring in workplace health and safety legislation in the 1970s and 1980s. That's simply beyond question - the decline in workplace injuries and deaths speak for themselves. On the political front, I think that the Conservative caucus has caved in to pressure from the agri-business lobby, companies that like things the way they are - they don't have to take responsibility for keeping their workers safe and healthy."

The AFL is also requesting the Farming and Ranching Exemption be amended to allow for investigations into all farm-related deaths, serious injuries or injuries involving a child, which might be accomplished by extending Section 38 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, permitting a minister to convene a board of inquiry into the circumstance of an accident.

"What these exemptions mean is that even when someone is injured or killed on an agricultural work site the government's own health and safety inspectors can't go to that worksite to investigate and find out what happened, and they also can't make recommendations to fix things so that it doesn't happen again."

Little Bow MLA Barry McFarland is confident that under most circumstances existing legislation serves the best interests of Albertans and the agricultural industry.
"I think for the most part it's (health and safety coverage) already available. Where I have a problem is where you come on to the mom and pop kind of farm, and start expecting to legislate what you have to do with your own family labour - that's problematic for me. If I were to hire somebody from outside the immediate family to work on the family farm, worker's compensation is available. I've got insurance that is available for coverage."

The issue of agri-businesses and large corporate farms that employ significant numbers of paid farm workers while remaining exempt from occupational health and safety legislation is another issue.

"Where I do understand where people are coming from is what I would call a commercial farm operation where you've got multitudes of employees - more than a family business, even though it might have the perception of being a family business," said McFarland.

McFarland is in support of considering health and safety coverage be applied in situations where large numbers of paid agricultural workers are employed by a corporate farm or agri-business.

"Unfortunately, anytime someone is killed or hurt, it becomes an issue. The commercial operations, I think there should be some adequate coverage there, and maybe we've got to start looking at making sure it's done through some kind of legislation."

Making sure that smaller-scale family farms don't become bogged down is the real problem in considering a legislative solution, according to McFarland.

"I think it's going to get reviewed, but I think the big drawback right now is making sure that they don't come on to Barry McFarland's farm, who's farming with his wife and two kids, and say look it, you've got to have all the harnesses on when you go up on your Quonset to change the light or something. And that's what happens in the private sector. But I've got insurance if you come to my place and get hurt - you're insured."

According to an AFL press release, there have been more than 160 accidental farm deaths in Alberta in the last decade.

Vauxhall Advance, Thurs Feb 10 2011
Byline: Trevor Busch

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