Health care system absorbs added costs

Alberta’s lack of labour regulations for farm workers costs the provincial health-care system at least $4.5 million annually, according to recent figures tabled in the legislature.


Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann presented figures compiled by Bob Barnetson, a professor at the Centre for Work and Community Studies at Athabasca University.


“We lack the information we need to have a handle on just how much is being transferred from these industrial (farm) operations to the public purse,” said Swann in a Nov. 6 interview. 


However, he said he considers $4.5 million to be the minimum costs incurred because Alberta farm workers are not covered by occupational health and safety regulations and participation in Workers Compensation Board insurance is voluntary.


“We know the health system is overwhelmed with demand. Why the ministers involved wouldn’t see the opportunity here to download some of the costs and some of the services to the Workers Compensation Board through a simple act of legislating it, is really a mystery.”


Barnetson generated his cost estimates at the request of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta. 


“That’s a pretty low ball number, but it kind of gives at least an indication that there’s some sort of scope to this,” said FUA president Eric Musekamp. “I’m not sure exactly what kind of reaction we’re going to get.”


In an email provided by FUA, Barnetson said medical costs related to agricultural injuries are difficult to calculate because there is little data. He considers the $4.5 million figure to be a rough estimate.


WCB data lists 2,825 workers on 1,300 farming operations that are covered by workers compensation in Alberta. By dividing WCB claims made by those workers into medical aid costs, he arrived at an average of $80.35 per worker.


That number was multiplied by the number of farm workers in the province, which Barnetson estimated at 60,000. He deducted WCB payouts from those with coverage to arrive at $4.5 million as the cost of farm workplace injuries covered by Alberta Health.


Craig Loewen, spokesperson for Alberta human services minister Dave Hancock, said the government continues to study the farm worker protection issue.


“There’s obviously nothing on the fall agenda. Both the ministers of human services and of agriculture and rural development are looking at the issue, though.”


Musekamp said he met with government officials last week in Edmonton and spoke with premier Alison Redford last month. He remains optimistic about eventual government action.


Swann is less certain.


“They talk a lot. They currently indicate they are studying the issues and this has, of course, been going on for at least a decade. They’ve been feeling some pressure about the lack of respect for farm workers and the lack of legislation that would protect their health and safety.”