Alberta farm group slams labour law

The Alberta Federation of Agriculture is criticizing the province’s new farm labour rules, arguing they will make it more difficult for farmers to attract workers.

The organization said while it understands some producers may welcome these changes, it said many people and farmers have told them they would never consider working on a farm that didn’t provide protection for workers and their families.

“AFA (Alberta Federation of Agriculture) has long taken the stance that WCB (Workers’ Compensation Board) should be compulsory for all employers that have full-time employees, including farms,” AFA president Lynn Jacobson said in an email after reviewing the new legislation

“One of the big advantages of WCB is it protects the employer from litigation while providing an income and job training if needed, for an injured worker,” he said.

The AFA’s criticisms come after the United Conservative Party government announced earlier this month that it would exempt farms with five or fewer employees from requiring workers insurance and from following other regulations.

The exemption would apply to about 78 percent, or 32,000, of all farms in the province, according to government data.

Despite criticisms that the new rules will exacerbate labour shortage issues, Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen has said the market will dictate a solution.

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

“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,” Dreeshen said when announcing the legislation in mid-November.

The law gives producers the option to have either private or WCB coverage. Many farmers have said previously that private insurance is better.

But the AFA’s criticisms go beyond labour shortage concerns.

Jacobson said the exemption could bring Alberta back to a time when only about 30 percent of farms had adequate worker coverage.

Many, he said, were relying on their liability insurance. He pointed out that liability insurance is only triggered when farmers are sued or have legal action taken against them.

“The strategy of relying solely on your liability insurance for protection has some serious hazards associated with it and in some instances, liability insurance may not cover you,” he said, noting coverage might not be applicable when shielding on equipment is not up to standard.

“The suggestion by the Alberta government that farm workers can sue in the case of an injury is not an adequate remedy. Serious injury cases can take years to settle and the settlements can force the sale of a farm,” he said.

As well, Jacobson added, the new rules present an issue of fairness for workers.

He said if workers are injured on the farm, some employers could terminate them and leave them with no resources and no income, as well as with little ability to sue their employer.

“While the (Occupational Health and Safety) act will apply to health and safety issues and will allow OHS inspectors to enter a farm, we had expected there would have been some effort by the government to address the issues around employment standards like hours of work and child labour,” he said.

“These issues are addressed by other industries and we think some of those solutions could have been applied here.”

Despite the criticisms, other farm organizations have welcomed the changes, saying it’s a commonsense approach that gives farmers more freedom.

They also say farms will get insurance, whether it’s through WCB or private, regardless because they will need to attract workers.

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

Last week, the bill passed committee of the whole and is slated for third reading.

The NDP opposition said the bill reverses basic labour and human rights. It has urged the government to ensure workers get minimum wage.

“No other jurisdiction in North America exempts any class of workers from earning at least some type of minimum wage for their work,” said NDP leader Rachel Notley. “(Premier) Jason Kenney is more than undoing Bill 6 (the former legislation), he’s taking Alberta back to pre-industrial revolution labour laws.”

Among the changes, the new law means farm workers won’t be allowed to unionize.

The AFA pointed to a Supreme Court of Canada case that ruled farm workers do have the right to form unions, bargain collectively and take legal job action. Excluding farm and ranch workers from the labour relations code was deemed unconstitutional, Jacobson said.

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