Challenges to Sask. labour law force review of farm definition

Provincial bureaucrats who administer Saskatchewan’s labour legislation say they are developing a clearer understanding of what is and isn’t farm work in modern agriculture. 


A clause in the province’s Labour Standards Act, which sets the minimum standards of employment, exempts those “employed primarily in farming, ranching or market gardening.”


The provision is intended to reflect the nature of work on traditional family farms and excludes egg hatcheries, greenhouses, nurseries, bush clearing operations and commercial hog operations.


Challenges to that provision aren’t common, said Glen McRorie, director of compliance and investigations with the labour relations and workplace safety ministry, but have occasionally prompted a variety of decisions.


For example, breeding dogs on a farm doesn’t meet the exemption, but the day-to-day activities of fish farming do.


However, McRorie said there is a caveat. The exemption doesn’t apply if workers are engaged in processing a product.


“I think what we’ve seen is that the courts really looked at restricting that somewhat to individuals who actually do that farm kind of labour,” said McRorie. 


“The other interesting thing is our farms are getting bigger, but size doesn’t really matter.… As long as it’s kind of one entity and it’s looking after raising animals, if it’s raising crops, that kind of thing, it’s going to fall within the exemption.”


A Court of Queen’s bench decision last year found that Nancy Holdner, a former bookkeeper and office manager at Rocking Hills Cattle Co. near Kenaston, Sask., was owed $6,280 by her employer for overtime pay and statutory holiday pay.


“Some of these ones are on the edge,” he said. “In this case, the person was a bookkeeper that worked full time. “


The company appealed the original adjudicator’s ruling, arguing Holdner was employed primarily in farming and ranching as defined by the act. The adjudicator’s ruling was upheld.


However, McRorie said most cases and complaints are more clear cut. Even as farms grow large, and operators seek more work from off-farm employees, the exemption stands.


“As long as it’s farming work, it doesn’t matter how big (the operation) is. We probably would fairly quickly weed those ones out,” said McRorie. 


“It’s the ones like the processing, the custom work, the bookkeeper. Those are the ones that we then take a look at, and we don’t get a significant number of those. That’s not a very big percentage of our work.”


The government published a consultation paper on updating the legislation earlier this year. 


It mentions the exemption and identifies the rise of larger farms with more sophisticated, corporate structures.


“This raises the question of whether the current exemptions are appropriate,” reads the report.


The province solicited feedback to the report during the summer.


The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, which took a status quo approach, cited farmers’ reliance on family members and seasonal employees. 


A September news release from labour minister Don Morgan’s office said that the updated legislation will be introduced in the provincial legislature this fall.

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