Farm labour exemptions proposed

Alberta introduces legislation that would exempt the majority of farm operations from labour and safety regulations

The Alberta government plans to roll back some labour and safety regulations for the vast majority of farms in an attempt to ease concerns from industry over the contentious issue.

The Farm Freedom Safety Act, tabled Nov. 20 in the legislature, introduces a plan that the United Conservative Party government hopes will create a flexible farm safety regime, aiming to appease producers while leaving some protections to workers.

However, the legislation would roll back some safety standards for most of Alberta’s farms.

The proposed legislation would exempt farms with five or fewer employees from needing workers insurance. These farms make up 78 percent, or 32,000, of all farms in the province. The remaining 22 percent, or 9,000, are considered large.

Large farms with six or more workers will have the option to either get WCB coverage or private insurance for their employees. Insurance must cover death, dismemberment and disability.

Along with the insurance exemption, small farms also won’t be required to follow all employment standards rules.

There are concerns that not requiring small farms to have insurance will deter people from wanting to work in the industry and add to labour shortage pressures.

However, Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen believes there is a solution to this.

He said the market could put pressure on small farmers to get insurance for their employees if they notice labour retention becomes an issue.

“I think the market place will ultimately decide. There is an exemption, but that’s the bare minimum,” he said.

“If smaller farms, in order to attract a worker, need to offer some private worker insurance, they are in a free market and are free to do that.”

It’s expected the legislation will be widely supported by farmers in Alberta.

The former NDP government’s Bill 6 caused an uproar when it was introduced, and farmers have urged changes ever since.

The UCP government consulted with farmers over the summer following the provincial election, asking them what changes they wanted.

Many asked for choice of workplace insurance, simple and clear guidelines that fit the reality of agriculture, a reduction in documentation and regulations, and limited labour relations.

“This is something we heard from farmers they wanted to have — that special consideration for small farms — and that’s where we believe we struck the right balance,” Dreeshen said.

Kevin Bender, a regional representative with the Alberta Wheat Commission, welcomed the changes.

He said the government is taking a common-sense approach that gives more freedom to farmers.

As well, he doesn’t think no-insurance requirements will deter people from wanting to work in the industry. Many small producers will likely get insurance if the market dictates that, he added.

“We care about workers and take their interests seriously,” he said.

“This is a market-driven focus and very workable.”

However, the provincial NDP say the legislation is concerning because it would remove protections for some workers and no longer require WCB coverage.

Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers’ Union of Alberta, echoed much of that sentiment.

“Rolling back labour and safety requirements is a stunning step backwards,” he said.

“It harms Alberta’s reputation for farm safety, and it only exacerbates labour shortage issues.”

If employees without insurance do get injured, Dreeshen said there are other actions they can take, such as going to court.

He said the labour ministry will be spending $500,000 on education for both farmers and farm workers to inform them of insurance coverage options.

“It will help educate more in the complexities of an insurance-type payout,” he said.

However, NDP labour critic Christina Gray said removing the WCB opens the window for employees to sue employers if they are injured and not insured.

“It’s a costly and timely process and puts those employers’ operations at potential risk,” she said.

“We’ve seen in other jurisdictions farmers lose their farms from a workplace injury.”

Bender said many farmers wanted private insurance because they felt it offered better coverage. The WCB requirement, he added, was just more red tape.

The changes mean it’s possible for there to be an onus on employees to get their own insurance coverage.

It also opens the door for co-pay situations, Dreeshen said, allowing the employee and employer to share in the premium cost. He noted there are tax benefits with this system.

“We wanted the most amount of flexibility when it comes to private worker insurance,” he said.

“We wanted to try to reflect the realities of how the labour code works.”

Family members and neighbours helping on the farm will remain exempt from the regulations.

Hutterite colonies largely won’t be affected.

The proposed legislation will require all farms with waged, non-family workers to comply with the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which ensures basic health and safety. However, they will be exempt from the OHS regulation and code.

They will be exempt from overtime, hours of work and youth rules. General holiday pay will be 4.2 percent and they must get four days of rest for every 28 days of work. Employees also have the right to refuse unsafe work.

Employees will no longer be allowed to unionize. There are currently no unionized farm workers in the province.

Current Occupational Health and Safety, Labour Relations and WCB requirements will continue to apply to greenhouses, nurseries, mushroom farms and sod farms. They will, however, receive the family member and the small employer exemption, as well as be exempt from overtime, hours of work and youth rules, and have general holiday pay at 4.2 percent and four days of rest for every 28 days.

Cannabis production facilities will not be included in the definition of farm and ranch for the workplace legislation.

AgSafe Alberta will be educating producers on the new changes, providing online training and paper manuals.

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