Labour law inclusion demanded for Alta. farms

Lack of protection for Alberta farm workers was highlighted Aug. 20 by Alberta's New Democrats and the Alberta Federation of Labour.

The two groups used the occasion of the AFL-designated Alberta farm workers day to urge the provincial government to extend occupational health and safety laws and workers compensation benefits to farm employees.

NDP agriculture critic David Eggen said his party issues the call every year to increase standards under which farm workers can be protected.

"It's very dangerous work and farm workers are not being protected with the basic rights that other workers have here in the province of Alberta," Eggen said at a Lethbridge news conference.

"They're far behind the rest of Canadian farm workers. It shows callous disregard to an important sector of our population."

Shannon Phillips, AFL director of policy analysis, said previous Progressive Conservative governments have explained lack of farm worker protections as a way to avoid intrusion on family farm operations.

"We find that excuse to be just that," said Phillips, adding the explanation is a red herring for government failure to provide adequate worker protection.

"There is no excuse any more. And we also have a premier on the record saying that she is going to do this."

In her leadership campaign, Alberta premier Alison Redford said farm laborers should have protection.

However, no changes have been made to legislation since Redford's election earlier this year that would affect farm worker status.

Phillips said many farms are large commercial operations with workplaces like any other, so workers deserve the same protections offered in other sectors.

In a later interview, Eggen echoed those opinions.

"The large farms that have been amalgamated into companies and corporations now need to be the very first up to give full rights to their workers," he said. "In regards to smaller operations, we can have a differentiated approach, with the provincial government providing some of those premiums to the smaller operators. Large corporate farms need to pay full freight on their workers' rights and compensation immediately."

Eggen and Phillips noted recent evidence that the province no longer tracks and reports farm worker fatalities. Queries were instead directed to dated data on the Canadian Farm Injury Reporting website.

However, agriculture ministry spokesperson Stuart Elson said Aug. 23 that 2011 farm injury and fatality statistics would be posted within a few days.

"We just want to make sure we are respecting the privacy of the families, but we're actually going to be putting up some updated stats."

He said concerns were raised about the level of detail in Alberta farm fatality reporting, so the process was reviewed.

"We will be posting it pretty quickly.

At the news conference earlier in the week, Eggen expressed concern about lack of available 2011 data.

"I think the statistics have been embarrassing, quite frankly. We have seen historically 160 deaths here in the province of Alberta around farm workers since Alberta started to keep the statistics."

Alberta is the only province that excludes farm workers from occupational health and safety laws and from regulations governing hours of work, overtime and vacation pay.

Phillips said the matter has been studied for years by successive PC governments but with no action taken.

"This thing has been studied and studied and studied to death. Over the nine years that the provincial government said they were consulting on this topic, 160 people died."

The Western Producer, Friday August 31 2012

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