Grant shouldn’t be end to farm safety issue

Alberta Agriculture recently announced a new grant program for farm safety to the tune of $715,000, part of which will be given to local ag societies.

Alberta Agriculture recently announced a new grant program for farm safety to the tune of $715,000, part of which will be given to local ag societies. That’s an admirable step by the government as education is always valuable. The fear with this grant is that it will be used as an excuse by the Alberta government to derail any further progress in bringing farm workers under the provincial labour code and occupational health and safety rules. That opinion has been expressed by the Farmworkers Union of Alberta. They could be right as neither the ag minister or the labour minister has made any comment about any future rights for farm workers under provincial legislation.

It’s been almost exactly a year since a provincial court judge reviewing the Chandler case recommended that the Alberta government bring farm workers into the existing labour legislation to make them equal to workers in other sectors of the economy. The former agriculture minister stated that he would be reviewing the recommendations and would consult with the ag industry. But nothing significant has arisen from those deliberations, perhaps the new agriculture minister will be ruminating on the matter and make some decision soon.

Alberta is I believe the last jurisdiction in the country that has not placed farm workers under provincial labour and safety legislation. There is a message in that, the other provinces can’t be all wrong and Alberta correct on this matter. It should be noted that the agriculture industry has not collapsed in those provinces because they brought their farmworkers into the mainstream of labour working condition regulations.

There isn’t much of an excuse not to bring in workers who toil as full-time employees on large commercial operations under provincial labour legislation. They are working for wages in an employer/employee situation at times under dangerous conditions. Large feedlot and other operations recognized that situation a long time ago and acquired private insurance to address workplace safety conditions. Clearly the threat of lawsuits for accidents forced owners into taking that step. I also suspect lending institutions are also demanding that borrowers have proper insurance coverage on large operations.

I see no reason why the legislation can’t be extended to all ag operations that employ fulltime workers for wages – particularly if they are not family members.

The industry excuse is that agriculture is unique in that much of farm and ranch work is done by family members. That is true – but is the assumption that somehow family labour is less valuable than hired labour. Yes they labour under the perception that they are contributing to the economic well-being of the family farm and are somehow rewarded in other ways. Be that as it may – it in a way diminishes the value of family labour particularly that of older members – whose contribution can be significant.

What happens now when a family member particularly the main operator gets injured or disabled doing farm work – well, unless there is insurance in place it can be catastrophic to the farm operation or the member. If say the labour code was further extended to cover all farm labour including that of the owner and family members – it could provide a safety net to protect the family farm and its members from financial ruin and provide some security in the case of long-term disability.

Sure coverage that extensive brings with it a whole new nightmare of rules and paperwork. Inevitably government busybodies will want to establish inspections and working conditions. That’s what scares the ag industry – its hard enough as it is to make a living on the farm without bureaucrats enforcing new rules and creating new costs to stay in business. That’s a fair enough concern. Perhaps the government could look at some sort of subsidy or tax incentive to encourage participation. Perhaps a program could be created under the auspices of Agriculture Financial Services Corporation rather than the labour department who have zero understanding of agriculture.

The alternative to do nothing is not all that attractive anymore. People continue to die and get injured doing farm and ranch work be they as workers or family workers. This continuous reality creates endless physical, emotional and financial devastation. Education and wishful thinking will not change that reality, Alberta should be able to deal with this situation better. It would seem that those opposed to change are those that never suffered a financial loss or physical disability due to a farm accident.