RED DEER — A clarification of farm safety rules by the minister of agriculture did little to quell the unhappiness of 500 angry farmers at a consultation meeting.
Agriculture minister Oneil Carlier admitted the government had done a poor job of communicating how the proposed farm safety legislation would affect farmers and farm families.
“We are sorry, we should have provided the details about how we plan to protect farm and ranch families when we first introduced the bill,” he told the farmers at a consultation meeting.
Proposed amendments to the legislation would make it clear that mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage would be required only for paid employees, with an option for farmers to extend coverage to unpaid workers like family, neighbours and friends.
Proposed occupational health and safety rules would apply when a farm employs one or more paid employees at any time of the year.
“Neighbours and family members can still lend a helping hand to work in the fields, care for the livestock can still do so. Farm kids will still participate in 4-H. The farm life everyone in the room holds dear will go on without government intervention,” said Carlier.
“The intent of Bill 6 is to protect paid workers on farms and ranches while preserving the family farm.”
The amendments didn’t appease the crowd who gathered at the Westerner Park grounds in Red Deer before the consultation meeting to protest the bill and later discussions inside the building.
“We need to get the regulations right and work with you to do that. We have not been clear in communicating with you about this bill. These amendments are one way we can do better,” said Carlier, who would give no commitment the bill would be put on hold until more questions were answered.
Blaine Staples, a grain farm and market garden owner from Innisfail, wondered why the bill is being pushed through before the details are finalized.
“This is being rushed. We need to know the rules for at least a year so we can adapt.”
Staples estimates that proposed changes to workplace labour laws would add an additional $38,000 a year to his labour costs.
Johnny Meilink, a dairy farmer from Red Deer, said it is not right to limit workers to only 44 hours of work.
“Dairy farmers work till the job gets done, especially in the field work season,” said Meilink, who said he routinely works more than 50 hours a week on the family dairy farm.
He is also opposed to any health and safety rules.
“Common sense ensures safety,” he said.
“I am always safe. Leave us alone.”
Sietze Sietzema, a dairy farmer from Olds, said the bill needs to be repealed, especially any implementation of farm safety rules on farmers.
“Accidents happen anywhere on a farm, or on the job site. It’s common sense. All the government wants to do is have the kids sit in the house and play video games. City slickers have no common sense or work ethic,” said Sietzema.
“Dairy farmers put in more than 40 hours a week. We need to scrap it and rethink it.”
Farmers and ranchers were not to be appeased with the assurances the WCB and health and safety rules would apply only to paid farm workers and continued to heckle the minister.
Gary Wagner of Innisfail said he was disturbed by the lack of consultation with farmers before the bill was introduced.
“There was zero consultation from us,” said Wagner.
“We know what is safe and what isn’t.”
In a reversal from the bill’s initial introduction, Carlier said Hutterite colonies would no longer be required to have mandatory WCB.
While colony members were happy with the changes, others in the room booed the minister and said it was yet another way colonies have an unfair advantage over other farmers.
Later, Carlier said the consultation meetings would continue across the province and listen to farmers.
“I would have to be made of stone to sit here and not hear the passion in the room,” he said, but it would unlikely slow down the passage of the bill in case there was another farm fatality that couldn’t be investigated.
“Gosh forbid that we had the opportunity now to pass this legislation and we didn’t and there was another fatality on a farm and we’re not allowed the opportunity to even inspect that fatality to try to learn what we could possibly learn to prevent that,” said Carlier.