Farm labour gets little traction in Alta. election

Party leaders concentrate more on health care and the economy, while resolutions not dealt with at recent labour convention

Legislated workers compensation coverage for farm workers has not been an issue in the Alberta election campaign.

It is part of the Liberal platform and has been verbally supported by the New Democrats, but agricultural issues of any kind have been scant on the party leader campaign front.

Instead, the economy and health care are taking centre stage.

Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta and Liberal candidate for Cypress-Medicine Hat, said he is raising the issue on doorsteps in his constituency.

However, he was disappointed that none of the four resolutions dealing with farm worker insurance and safety coverage were dealt with at the April 16-18 Alberta Federation of Labour convention in Calgary.

“I don’t know if there’s a political agenda or if they’re just out to lunch,” said Musekamp.

Requests to the AFL for information on the status of the resolutions were not returned by press time.

One of the resolutions would have directed the AFL to file a complaint with the International Labour Organization about Alberta’s lack of farm worker protection. Another would have raised the same issue related to North American Free Trade Agreement rules.

A third would have seen the AFL urge all Alberta MLAs to include farm workers in employee protection legislation. That resolution, No. 621, would have positioned the AFL to lobby for farm worker inclusion under the Alberta Employment Standards Code, the Alberta Labour Code, Alberta Workers Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Alberta farm workers are “exempt from most of the basic employment protections that other Albertans take for granted,” said the resolution.

It also said farm workers should have the right to unionize, refuse unsafe work and receive overtime, statutory holiday pay and mandatory workers compensation coverage.

A fourth resolution would have established a compensation fund for farm workers injured on the job.

“It certainly shows that their interests are in the right place as to what needs to be done, so maybe they will step up with perhaps the NAFTA or the ILO complaints,” said Musekamp.

Farm employers can voluntarily provide workers compensation coverage and insurance, but they are not required to do so by legislation. An estimate calculated by labour relations researcher Bob Barnetson said seven percent of farmers provide such coverage.

Musekamp said oil workers in southern Alberta have been laid off recently because of the drastic drop in oil prices, but the lack of mandatory coverage for farm workers is likely one reason why they don’t apply for available farm jobs.

There continues to be a labour shortage in the agricultural sector, some of it addressed through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

“I’ve been warning about this labour shortage for a decade now,” he said.

“The fact that there are no labour standards, no health and safety standards and a crazy high rate of death and injury and no workers compensation, that kind of puts people off.”

Farm work can be a dangerous occupation. Preliminary data from last year by Alberta’s chief medical examiner’s office said 25 farm-related deaths were investigated last year.

Twenty-two of them were men and the average age was 59. Two of those killed were younger than 18.

Nine were machinery related, which includes being caught, crushed or struck by equipment, rollovers, falls and collisions.

Three incidents involved animals, another three were falls and three were crushed by bales.

April to June was the deadliest period, during which nine people died in farm-related accidents.

In 15 of the 25 deaths, the deceased was the owner-operator of the farm or a family member working on the farm. Five were employees or contractors, three were visitors to the farm and two were not involved with the farm.

Barnetson and Musekamp have both said in the past that mandatory Workers Compensation Board coverage for employees would provide protection for employers as well.

“It always needs to be pointed out that there is not a substitute for WCB in private insurance,” said Muse-kamp.

“Only the WCB is no fault, no litigation insurance, and private insurance is the complete opposite of that, so WCB really is the best risk insurance available to employers. They just don’t realize it.”

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