The agriculture primary production sector has managed to keep farmworker rights off the table since 1948, but that all ended in one fell swoop by the present provincial government. The Minister of Labour introduced Bill 6 in the legislature which will provide farmworkers with the same OHS, WCB, and other worker rights as other sectors in the economy. This should come as no surprise to the farm community as farmworker rights were an NDP election promise and goes to the core of NDP ideology. The absence of even basic rights had become something of an embarrassment as Alberta was the last jurisdiction in the country not to protect farmworkers. The lack of basic rights was due the previous PC government’s determination against even rudimentary worker protection. It’s hard to believe in this day and age that a government was still opposed to granting rights that were given to workers in other sectors over 100 years ago. Farmworkers were not even allowed to join a union – that alone would strike a raw nerve with any NDP government.
The farmworker issue was so one-sided that this new legislation can to an extent be blamed on the ag industry itself. Had they over the last 20 years supported the introduction of at least some rudimentary farmworker rights, the impact of the new legislation might have been mitigated. One suspects that producers and their organizations had become complacent with the issue assuming that the 44 year reign of the PC government dynasty was going to last forever. It should be said that some producer organizations saw the writing on the wall with the election of an NDP government and made attempts to seek some consensus with what the new government was expected to do farmworker rights. Unfortunately, other groups dug in their heels, and lobby companies were engaged to derail and delay the legislation. To their credit the Agriculture and Labour Ministers did make an effort to meet and consider the views of the various industry groups, but one suspects that some of the groups could not understand that the political dynamics had changed and that past attitudes and connections would no longer work in influencing government intentions. The result was Bill 6 which provides for blanket extension of all worker rights to farmworkers; some of them will be implemented as soon as January 1, 2016.
The devil of course is in the details, the government does agree that working conditions and processes are different in the farm and ranch sector. To get a better understanding of the impact of Bill 6 and what adjustments may be needed in the implementation of specific rules and regulations, the government has agreed to hold consultation meetings across the province. Producers and their organizations would do well to take a cooperative and positive approach in the establishment of the regulations that will govern the new legislation. This government is determined to proceed with implementing Bill 6 and aggravating the process will not be productive to the ag industry.
The NDP government has shown a willingness to collaborate with various economic sectors to see their policies implemented. They don’t seem willing to weaken those policies under lobbying or political pressure. That should serve as a clue that it would be better to accept the new reality and work with government to mitigate new legislation to get the best deal possible. I believe the energy sector has come to that conclusion and has decided to support the Alberta government in its quest to reduce emissions in the province. I would suggest that the primary farm and ranch production sector would benefit from requesting the government to establish a permanent farmworkers’ rights oversight committee that would establish and govern the rules and regulations needed to implement Bill 6. The committee would have to be inclusive and obviously include equal representation from workers and employers. That would go a long way to creating a more harmonious and fair relationship between the two groups.
One notes that two issues are not specifically addressed with Bill 6, one the voluntary inclusion of medium-sized farm owner/operators, who in many cases have no protection from injury related economic devastation. The other issue involves the status of child labour on Hutterite colonies, although that could be addressed with more specific regulations within the new regulations. The recent death of a 10-year-old whilst driving farm equipment on a colony highlights the need to pursue such situations. These types of accidents need to be prevented; hopefully Bill 6 will start the process.