Mandatory workers comp advised for farm workers

The tale of Alberta farm workers exclusion from mandatory workers compensation coverage sounds like a Randy Travis country song.

“It’s farmers, and preachers and hookers and teachers. Those are the people who we leave out,” said labour relations researcher Bob Barnetson of Athabasca University.

His report, A dirty business: The exclusion of Alberta farm workers from injury compensation, has been released by the Parkland Institute, a research network based at the University of Alberta.

Barnetson contends that farm workers should not be excluded from mandatory coverage when virtually all other occupations are required to do so.

Nor does he credit the oft-stated reason of farmers’ inability to afford coverage.

“Farmers in nine other provinces and territories somehow manage these costs. I don’t know what makes Alberta particularly special,” Barnetson said.

“Most of the employment on Alberta farms occurs on large farms, with thousands of acres or thousands of head of cattle, or revenues of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even if all of that’s wrong, the bottom line here is that workers ought to have compensation if they’re injured on the job, and government should not be subsidizing farms that can’t afford that by allowing them this exclusion.”

In his paper, Barnetson said the provincial Progressive Conservative government has failed to implement mandatory farm worker coverage for political reasons.

He suggests the existence of an unofficial arrangmeent in which the province won’t impose it if farmers continue to vote Conservative.

“In order to form government, the Tories need to have rural ridings,” he said.

“If they were to do something like force farmers to provide basic rights to farm workers, they’re at risk of losing those ridings. I think we saw that in the 2012 election (when the Wildrose Party won 17 seats).”

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said there is no arrangement, unspoken or otherwise, between farmers and the province on the issue.

However, he is aware that all or parts of the rural caucus don’t favour making workers compensation mandatory on the farm.

As for the AFA, Jacobson said the matter has been discussed internally and with other commodity groups.

The federation hasn’t stated support for mandatory Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for farm workers, but it does see merit in it.

“It’s a great risk management tool, is what it comes down to. There’s some unique benefits with workers compensation that other insurance policies don’t have,” said Jacobson.

“One of our feelings is, if you are in this business, you should have some type of insurance. Whether it’s workmans comp or another insurance policy, you should have it because just having your liability insurance on your farm … probably isn’t adequate in many ways.”

Alberta farm employers have the option to provide WCB coverage or other insurance to their workers.

Barnetson estimates that seven percent provide it to their employees. Figures on other types of insurance are not available.

He said the farm worker exclusion in Alberta dates back to 1918, when farmers complained about the expense.

Since then, the government has continued the exclusion for other employment rules as well, including child labour restrictions and occupational health and safety regulations.

“It’s a really blanket exclusion,” he said.

“When you get right down to it, there’s really no explanation that fits as well as a political explanation that farmers, as distinct from farm workers, don’t want to have to carry the costs associated with workplace rights and they have reached a political quid pro quo with the Conservative government: don’t make us subject to workers compensation and we’ll continue to vote for you.”

The cost of WCB coverage in Alberta this year is $2.71 per $100 of insurable earnings.

Premiums are less in some other provinces where farm worker coverage is mandatory. The program isn’t mandatory in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

“If I was an employer, I would think that 50 or 60 bucks a month in WCB premiums for a full-time worker, its pretty cheap insurance,” said Barnetson.

“We take out hail insurance and fire insurance and whatnot. Why wouldn’t you also protect yourself from liability stemming from a workplace injury, given that we know farms are dangerous?”

Jacobson said he thinks the situation will change in Alberta, and farmers would be wise to get in on the discussions before then.

“It is going to be forced on the agriculture industry one way or the other, whether a judge is going to do it or some bill in the government is going to be passed.”

He said the rules that are in place for other industries, such as the oil patch, might be used as a template if it happens without farmer input, and that might not fit the agricultural situation.

Barnetson said in his report that there might be a constitutional argument for mandatory inclusion of farm workers in WCB coverage because as it stands, a specific occupational group has been singled out.

“I think the only thing that’s going to get the government to change its policy is being directed to do so by the courts,” he said.

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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