Right to strike a sticking point in farm worker legislation

Recommendations on how labour relations regulations and employment standards should or could be applied to Alberta’s farm and ranch workers are open for public input until April 3.

Reports from two of six committees appointed by the provincial government were released March 6 and are the latest developments in the NDP government’s controversial Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, formerly known as Bill 6.

Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier said the government has “learned some tough lessons” since it brought forward the bill and then passed the act.

Introduction of the bill caused widespread angst in the farm and ranch community, sparking protest rallies across the province. Lack of consultation was frequently cited as a criticism.

“These working groups have been an important step in rebuilding relationships and ensuring that all areas of the ag sector have a voice at the table,” Carlier said in a news conference at which two reports were released.

“I think this process … really helped appease a lot of those worries about consultation. I really think that our consultation has been robust.”

Bill 6 and the subsequent act prompted formation of the Ag Coalition that represents 29 agriculture groups in the province with the mandate to provide a unified response and input into how the act is applied.

Some of its members were appointed to the six working groups tasked with providing recommendations to government.

The 12-member group on labour relations did not reach consensus on several issues. Removing farm workers’ right to strike was among points of disagreement, as was requiring five workers as the minimum with which to unionize.

The group did agree on exempting family members from the code, getting ag representation on the Alberta Labour Relations Board and on the need for clear and effective communication about the code and its application.

“It became clear that a significant concern from the agricultural community participants was with their perceptions of the impact of the right to strike or lockout on the agricultural sector, particularly the impact of work stoppage on animal health and food-crop spoilage,” labour relations committee chair Cheryl Yingst Bartel wrote in her report.

“Some of the options discussed included regulations to limit the time periods when a strike could occur in various agricultural industries, changes to the emergency provisions in the code and removal of the right to strike.”

The report dealt with areas of disagreement by itemizing “strategic options” and the rationales for and against those options.

The report from the employment standards group showed consensus on all but one point. Members did not agree on a suggestion that minimum wage for non-family employees below age 16 should be 75 percent of the general minimum wage rate.

The group agreed on exemption for farm workers on hours of work, breaks, overtime and overtime pay provisions in the employment standards act. It also agreed on vacation days, vacation pay, hours of work limits for youths, requirement to pay at least minimum wage and exemption of family-member employees from the standards.

The two ministers repeatedly emphasized ongoing consultation about the act and its eventual details. Gray said she would ensure all comments received about the reports would be considered, but “the recommendations in both of these reports are really speaking to giving waged non-family farm workers access to the same rights and the same standards that are enjoyed by workers across Alberta.

“Now we’re looking to see what further changes to employment standards, labour relations code and occupational health and safety technical standards applying to farms and ranches are needed, but our government has committed to doing this only after consultations with industry.”

Page Stuart, co-chair of the Ag Coalition, said March 6 that the group will consult with its members about results from these two reports and provide input to government.

“We’re pleased that the government has committed to that continued engagement,” said Stuart.

“It’s critical that the detail be right. Right now, it’s a process.”

The four other working groups, three of them dealing with aspects of occupational health and safety and one on worker’s compensation, have yet to file their reports and recommendations.

Gray said no time frame or deadline has been established by government to finalize the full chapter and verse of the act.

“We’re not rushing this,” she said.

The complete labour relations and employment standards reports can be found at www.alberta.ca/farm-and-ranch-consultations.aspx.

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