Farm labour standards said lacking


Food companies are under pressure to refuse products from farms without ethical labour standards

An Alberta Liberal MLA continues to encourage food companies to consider the province’s lack of farm worker protection when choosing suppliers.


Dr. David Swann made headlines earlier this year when he urged PepsiCo Frito Lay, a major purchaser of Alberta potatoes, to stop buying from farms in Alberta because there is no legislative requirement for Workers Compensation Board in-surance for farm workers and farms aren’t subject to occupational health and safety rules or laws prohibiting child labour.


Swann said Nov. 6 that he has also sent letters to McDonald’s and Yum Foods, pointing out that their policies on ethical procurement are contradictory to their purchase of Alberta farm produce.


“They’re in a conflict,” said Swann.


“They want to appear to be ethical corporations, but when challenged, they have not indicated that they would change their buying patterns.”


The accusation of child labour on Alberta farms was particularly controversial when Swann raised it in August. 


Since then, he said a PepsiCo Frito Lay lawyer has called to assure him that Alberta potato growers know about the company’s prohibition on child labour.


“They are trying to sweep it aside, I’m afraid,” said Swann. “I intend to contact by phone representatives of McDonald’s and Yum Foods and just confirm they got the letter and then talk about whether they’re prepared to change their website or if they’re considering changing their suppliers of produce in Alberta to ethical employers.”


But Alberta Potato Growers executive director Helmut Leili said Swann has no verifiable data for accusations that Alberta potato growers use child labour. Most of them also voluntarily provide WCB coverage to all their workers.


“He has never ever ever provided any statistics,” said Leili about Swann’s assertions. “We follow rules and regulations set by the government and we work very aggressively with the provincial government whenever something does come up that we need addressing.” 


Leili said Frito Lay has expressed its confidence in Alberta growers’ practices, and worker safety is not a problem.


“In fact, workers compensation claims and costs have been going way down in our sector. It’s because there’s been no claims.”


PepsiCo’s Global Code of Conduct reads, in part, that the company will operate under policies that provide fair and equitable wages, benefits and other conditions of employment and that prohibit forced or child labour.


Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta, said he supports Swann’s efforts to bring farm worker risks to the attention of food companies.


“The labour standards in Alberta are incongruent with the corporations’ publicly stated ethical procurement policies because we have no child labor standards and be-cause we have no health and safety standards, and other labour standard exclusions,” said Musekamp.


Swann acknowledged his quest has potential to damage farmers’ incomes if successful.


“I do not want to harm them. What I want them to do is to add their pressure to protect their own interests and press this government to bring in legislation to ensure that everyone is on that level playing field.”


He said his target is “non-family farms,” those that employ people outside the family, off-site or otherwise. He also said he doesn’t intend to add expense to farmers.


The government has suggested in the past that requiring WCB coverage and subjecting farms to occupational health and safety standards would impose additional costs and restrictions that they might not be able to bear.


However, Musekamp said costs would not be prohibitive for large agricultural operations.


“I don’t buy the argument that these industries are so marginal that a three percent levy on their wages would put them out of business. But I can tell you certainly that the lawsuits will put them out of business. We’ve seen that.”


Musekamp argued that WCB coverage is the only mechanism available to farm operations to protect them from litigation.


Earlier this month, Lorna Chandler, whose husband, Kevan, was killed in a grain elevator in 2006, received compensation after six years of effort. The amount was not disclosed.


Musekamp contends Chandler would not have died had his em-ployer been subject to occupational health and safety standards and even if he had, WCB coverage would have eliminated the need for litigation.