Bill 6 passes: anger ‘all out of proportion’

The bill, designed to protect paid farm workers, sparked protests and threats against members of the NDP government

Farmers drove their trucks down highways, parked their tractors outside meeting halls, carried signs on pitchforks, created Facebook pages and presented more than 22,000 signatures in the legislature, all in an effort to kill a controversial Alberta farm worker bill.

But in the end, Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, passed third reading Dec. 10 44-29, almost a month after it was introduced on a farm north of Edmonton.

Once proclaimed, farmers with paid employees will be required to have Workers Compensation Board coverage for their employees by Jan. 1, and the province’s 43,000 farms will be required to follow as yet unknown occupational health and safety and labour standards.

It’s the unknown details that continue to worry farmers.

All WP Bill 6 coverage here.

Kent Erickson, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said the past two weeks were a whirlwind of legislation, followed by amendments exempting farm families from WCB and occupational rules.

Farmers, ranchers and agriculture groups now need to sit back and see what it all means.

“Now what? What are the amendments truly going to be getting at?” said Erickson.

“What will it mean for us?”

Erickson attended the government consultation meeting in Vegreville and noticed a level of dis-trust and wariness between the government officials trying to explain the bill and farmers opposed to the bill.

“It was emotional,” said Erickson, who saw little value in the town hall style meetings, which became a forum for anti-government sentiment rather than about writing a better farm bill.

“The protestors lost sight of the end game. The goal was to make a better bill that we can make for the farmers. Unfortunately, for some people the goal was to end the NDP government. It’s too bad.”

Erickson worried that 30 years spent building an image of agriculture as a viable, professional business have been cancelled out by a couple weeks of damage caused by online death threats to the premier and farmers at the public meetings bragging about unsafe practices disguised as character building.

Erickson said he couldn’t believe the audience applauding a 10-year-old boy who stood up at the Vegreville meeting to brag about how he could drive a 13-speed truck loaded with bales.

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“That kind of example is totally illegal if he took the rural roads,” he said. “We’re giving excuses to urban consumer that make us look terrible.”

In an interview after the bill passed third reading, Alberta premier Rachel Notley said the bill was about protecting paid farm workers rather than dictating how families run their farms.

Notley admits the omnibus bill covering workers compensation, health and safety, labour relations and employment standards was handled badly from the beginning.

“It would have been better if we would have launched this bill in better form, but when we understood the issues with it, we moved to correct them with an amendment to make its intent clear,” said Notley.

The government was forced to add amendments to the bill making it clear it would cover only paid farm workers and not stop neighbours from helping neighbours and children from working with their 4-H calf or helping collect eggs.

“Bill 6 will ensure … wage earning workers killed or injured on the farm will be compensated. It allows people to refuse unsafe work and it will phase in protection similar to those in other provinces after robust consultation,” said Notley.

The political damage has been done for many farmers, and the NDP government was seen as out of touch with rural Alberta and farmers.

The amended bill allows Occupational Health and Safety officials to investigate accidents and deaths on farms with paid farm workers but not accidents and deaths on family farms and Hutterite colonies.

Three sisters died in a farm accident near Withrow and a 10-year old boy died on a Hutterite colony in Lougheed within the past six weeks. Under the bill, neither accident would be investigated.

“Bill 6 is focused on protecting the rights of paid farm workers,” Notley said.

“There is no question both of those instances were traumatic and worrisome to the people of Alberta, but those could have easily occurred on an acreage owned by someone that is not a farm, occurred in a back alley in an urban, downtown community.

“That is about the relationship between parents and children and that is not what this bill is about. This bill is correcting the long, unmet need to protect vulnerable paid farm workers who are obliged to follow the instruction of their employers at risk of losing their job if they don’t. That is a different issue.”

Erickson said the commission 
has told the government it supports mandatory insurance, either through WCB or private insurance. It also supported OHS’s ability to investigate all farm accidents to allow the industry to improve farm safety.

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“Now it’s not a safety bill, it’s a labour bill,” he said.

Wildrose leader Brian Jean said most Albertans clearly oppose the bill, and the party will continue its opposition.

“I am very proud to say Wildrose was the first party to oppose Bill 6 and lead the charge against the bill,” said Jean, whose MLAs have hosted their own town hall meetings to allow farmers to voice their concerns about the bill.

“Farmers and ranchers had one simple request: kill Bill 6 and consult with farmers and ranchers.”

The government will launch a new round of consultation sessions once the bill is passed to draft detailed regulations for the health and safety and labour requirements.

Erickson hopes there will be a better flow of details between the government, industry sectors and producers.

“Maybe this is a wakeup call that farmers need to be more engaged in their producer groups.”

Alberta Beef Producers said in a newsletter: “Going forward, the government will face a tremendous challenge gaining the trust of thousands of farmers and ranchers who feel that their voices were not heard on Bill 6.”

The group said it would work with other commissions to ensure “regulations respect the unique nature of farm and ranch work and are practical for farmers and ranchers.”

Bob Barnetson, associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, said the opposition to Bill 6 is about more than farm safety; it’s about troubling economic times in agriculture, especially small family farms.

“This bill provides them with a target to vent their anger, not just the specifics of the bill, but the economic stress that small farms are in,” said Barnetson.

“That explains the amount of resistance and the degree of anger that has been shown, a degree of anger which is all out of proportion to what the bill actually does. Some of the backlash is frankly insane, the idea that health and safety is a pretext for seizing guns or expropriating land and force wind farms on the farmers.”

Barnetson lays part of the blame on the former Progressive Conservative government, which, unlike other provinces, didn’t gradually implement changes to farm safety legislation and labour relations while in power.

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“The Conservatives have had 44 years to address this. Hundreds of farm workers and farm people died because of their inaction, and they should be profoundly ashamed of that.”

  • Nathan Wagner

    Wow so if the conservatives killed hundreds of farm workers and farm people because of a lack of regulations then your logic would lead that regulations save lives, so let’s take transportation for example how many people have the ndp killed on our roads since they were elected? Obviously transportation isn’t regulated enough. Perhaps the best bet would be if it was illegal to own a vehicle and we all got government issued bicycles. Mr Barnetson you should be ashamed for using tragedies that happen to occur on a farm to make farmers look like idiots. The opposition to bill 6 has nothing to do with safety you are right, no farmer is opposed to safety you know why? Because working when you are hurt sucks, farmers don’t have the luxury of sitting at home in their Jammys when they wake up with the sniffles or going to the emergency room with a sliver so they can get a doctors note and take the rest of the week off. Work still has to get done, so farmers avoid injuries and accidents, it’s called common sense. We are however opposed to being force fed legislation that started off with lies, and have our 50 some thousand voices and hundred plus years of provincial heritage be silenced by a party that now is asking us to trust them with our livelihoods and offering little to no clarification other than “we’re listening” really? Listening to who? Not farmers we asked them to slow down and put the horse before the carriage, that is also called common sense

    • Leigh

      It is important to realize that the NDP isn’t a provincial party since it’s just the political arm of the big public sector unions with a head office in Toronto. We really should feel some pity for Notley since she is just a puppet of this big union, such as Stalin referred to as a “useful idiot”.

      Recall that the night she was elected that three guys flew out from the Toronto head office and took over as “chiefs of staff”? They are the ones really in charge. My guess is that Bill 6 is the thin edge of the wedge to force all farms to become unionized.

      • Harold

        The parable of common sense is true but it didn’t lead far enough. In this matter, it was not a Jesus Christ creating the parable. It was a NDP party. Their deceptive method is the same as the parable in that they cause the concern, which is intended to invoke emotion, and then they have the legislative solution.(1-2-3) The New/DP common sense emerges, but only to those who agree to their fantasy/parable. The common sense truly lies with the land owner of which whom were never consulted. By the very nature of the amendments we see that their Parable was flawed. Nonetheless, the common sense of the farmers is measured by the sum of their thoughts and not the sum of the NDP nor any one else. The common sense of a Mechanic and the common sense of a House Wife in no way cancel each other as being meaningless. In loud clothing, Professor Barnetson’s arrives with statements are indefensible, ridicules, and unbecoming of a professor. Those Farmers were standing up to their constitutional rights and the fundamentals of law, which is only out of proportion to those as Mr.Barnetson. On cue, In enters the wild rose to save us. He and Notley have sworn their allegiance to the Queen, and not us, so why is it we think passing our issues over to them can help. He will fight, but in the end he will be just as powerless as you or I, and we will applaud. If we all stand we will in fact create the laws and abolish them. If we give it to government they will, as displayed; create laws in our stead. On a side note, WCB was created solely to prevent employers from being sued and loosing their business. it is not a safety organization. So why is it included in the “labour bill” and forced upon an employer who may wish to take full responsibility for his actions? Will the bill allow the NDP to demonstrate that have created “new” farm Jobs out of nowhere. (where they already existed) New taxes? New revenue? You decide. Honesty makes sense to all, where dishonesty does not. If a law is not meaningful to all; then it is no law.[maxim] To have hope, is to put your outcome into the hands of others and not yourself. If not You….then whom? if not now…….when?

  • Nathan Wagner

    Hey Brent. I apologize for using the term “common sense” I didn’t realize that made me inept, senseless, a neophyte, ignorant, unqualified, hairbrained and stupid. I will be sure to educate everyone I meet who uses that phrase to describe practical, experience based knowledge that it is all a myth and by uttering those words they have offended everyone who lacks the qualities they are describing. The correct response to solving a problem is to ask Wikipedia, and resist the urge to use your critical thinking and problem solving skills, we all know how dangerous it is to try and solve a problem without consulting the Internet or a government issued manual first.
    My disagreement with this article is only towards Mr Barnetson implying that the ag industry is opposed to this legislation because farmers were apparently bored and frustrated with the economic stresses of farming and needed a place to vent. Economic stresses are no new experience for farmers. And especially his comment that the conservatives were solely responsible for every ag related death while they were in power. A truly asinine thing to say and an indefensible position.

  • John Fefchak

    Hmm…”NO COMMON SENSE” Well that explains it all ! That’s exactly why a lot of folks and countries get in trouble.
    I have always realized that ‘Common Sense” doesn’t grow in everybody’s garden and that it quite rare in many instances.
    But now, to be advised that there is no basis for such a term is
    indeed quite alarming! What ever shall we do when we have to make conclusive decisions? What a dilemma!