There was some inevitability to the recent government decision to move forward on Alberta Farmworkers Rights (mandatory OHS and WCB) being the issue was steeped in ideology. Its just that this time the ideology was reversed in favour of workers and not employers. That was to be expected from a new NDP government, and agriculture-related employers need to just accept reality and get on with making the adjustment. Besides it’s the right thing to do.
Newly minted Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier didn’t have to do it, but he went out of his way to hear out the views of the industry on this long-simmering issue. As the adoption of those rights was part of NDP election policy, the Minister moved quickly to get the industry involved in the discussion process to get the issue in motion. Industry groups indicated their usual concerns with cost, administration and logistics but with farmworker rights already in place in all other provinces for many years, it was a hard sell. Political reality was also against most Ag industry groups being that after 44 years of PC governments they had virtually no connections to the new government. It was those past cozy connections that Ag groups used to thwart any reforms on Farmworker Rights for all those years. From an ideological aspect there was really no way that an NDP government could refuse any workers their legitimate labour rights.
But the reality is that even taking out the ideology aspect of the issue, a legal opinion researched by the law faculty of the University of Calgary last year, showed that continuing to refuse those rights would be deemed to be unconstitutional in court. No matter what the political stripe of the Alberta government it’s unlikely it would have been able to win the case. At least now hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars will be saved in wasted legal fees.
The new government seems intent on realistically engaging all stakeholders on issues, which is a refreshing change from the previous PC regime. That provides an opportunity for farm groups to be part of the process and perhaps mitigate their concerns with the implementation. Its been rumoured that senior civil servants in both the Agriculture and Labour departments have been lobbied by some Ag groups and by professional lobby firms in the hope that they could derail or delay the issue. Continuing such background machinations now seems futile and could needlessly frustrate the situation. One casualty of the change in government is that PC connected lobby companies have lost most of their influence and will surely lose much of their business. But I digress.
What would help the implementation process is for Ag groups to present the government with positive ways and means to deal with perceived implementation concerns. Such areas as exempting unpaid farm family members and the role of private insurers need to be discussed. None of this is new or unique to the sector or to Alberta. Both government and industry groups would do well to learn from what has developed and been implemented in other provinces. Those Farmworker Rights programs in other jurisdictions have evolved and would seem to be working well, being the Ag industry and production seems to have survived and thrived. Surely Alberta can learn from the experience of other provinces, incorporate the best practices and establish an Alberta version that could be the best in the country. I would suggest that an Alberta program seriously consider incorporating OHS and WCB for farm owner/operators. In many farm accident cases the loss of the main operator has resulted in economic devastation to the farming enterprise and personal ruin to the family. Not all Ag operations in the province are large commercial enterprises with many employees. Small farm operators need as much protection as farmworkers. Their situation tended to become lost in the politics of the issue.
One of the underlying factors that made Farmworker Rights ideological was that the original 1948 legislation that exempted those workers also banned them from unionizing. Clearly that legislation will be repealed and the right to unionize will be restored. It’s a fear that some Ag groups and employers have, but widespread Farmworker unionization seems unlikely except with large commercial operations. If that happens – it may have been self-inflicted – as history has shown with other sectors of the economy. The required changes to the legislation are now in the hands of the Alberta Department of Labour. An injustice has finally been resolved.