Amendments tabled in the Alberta legislature Dec. 7 are designed to clarify parts of Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, and quell at least some of the farmer outrage that has gained momentum since the bill’s introduction in November.
Farm and ranch owners, family members and neighbours or volunteers who assist with farm and ranch work will not be required to have coverage under the Workers Compensation Board, the amendments indicated.
Similarly, operations with no paid, non-family employees will not be subject to Occupational Health and Safety regulations.
Labour minister Lori Sigurdson and agriculture minister Oneil Carlier held a news conference to explain the amendments, which they said were always the intent of government.
“It’s fair to say that I have heard a lot, and I’m grateful for that,” said Carlier about the numerous meetings and rallies he has attended in recent weeks.
“The farming and ranching community has spoken and we have heard them. The amendments that were introduced today make things very clear.”
Sigurdson said the amendments “address the concerns we’ve heard from Albertans, not only farmers and ranchers but all Albertans who care deeply about agriculture, farms and ranches and the rural communities they sustain.”
The ministers said Hutterite colonies that do not employ non-family paid workers will be exempt from mandatory WCB and OHS regulations.
Sigurdson confirmed that information about Bill 6 that initially appeared on the government website, and has since been removed, was wrong and officials are looking into how it occurred.
She said the early and erroneous information caused concern in the farm community and led to public meetings and ministers’ efforts to answer questions about the bill as it makes its way into law.
Farm groups and farmers have been critical of the government’s lack of consultation on the bill, which most said should occur before its passage.
The Alberta Federation of Agriculture recommended that the legislation be deferred for at least a year, until 2017, “to give producers a chance to become familiar with it, plan for it and budget for it.”
The Wildrose party made a similar recommendation in response to the amendments announced Dec. 7.
“The government needs to listen to the people, and either refer Bill 6 to committee or kill it outright,” said Jason Nixon, the Wildrose MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.
In the news conference, Sigurdson and Carlier reiterated that the bill is intended to provide protections for paid farm and ranch employees.
“We’re working with paid non-family members and we know that if we introduce this, that will create more of a culture of (safety) and I think that will have impacts,” Sigurdson said.
As of Jan. 1, farm operations with paid, non-family employees will be required to enrol in WCB coverage for those employees and will have until April 30 to do so.
Basic OHS rules to operate a safe work environment will also apply as of Jan. 1, along with workers’ rights to refuse unsafe work.
It will also allow investigations of serious farm accidents or deaths if they occur on a farm that has paid, non-family workers.
Provisions in the employment standards code and the labour relations act will not be enacted until details of their application to farms and ranches have been determined in consultation with the agricultural industry, the government said in a technical briefing.