Ministers need to address farm worker safety issue the Alberta way

If there is one issue that seems to drag on forever, it is the Alberta government’s reluctance to address farm worker health and workplace rules. This editor has written on the topic before, suggesting that Alberta get in step with the rest of the country and perhaps even take a great leap forward by implementing the best program of its kind by covering everyone working on the farm, not just paid workers.

Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden, to his credit, has taken a step forward; in conjunction with the employment minister, They initiated consultations on the issue and promised to do something with the matter. That’s the least they could do considering that Judge Peter Barley, in a farm fatality enquiry in January of 2009, stated that he could find no logical explanation as to why farm workers are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm workers.

Now we hear rumours that rather than provide Judge Barley with a logical explanation for the exemption (an impossibility in my view), the ministers’ consultants and bureaucrats are trying to find a way to dodge the issue again. The government is proposing to set up a provincial farm safety organization designed to provide education and training to the agriculture industry. To get feedback on the proposal, consultants were hired to ascertain the views of agriculture organizations and agri-business.

Well there is no problem with more safety education and training, although existing safety organizations and Alberta Agriculture department staff are already doing a credible job in that area. I can’t help but suspect that the proposal may result in the creation of another government agency similar to the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, it just replaced already existing government services, but with more money, more bureaucrats, and more busybodiness, but I digress.

One’s suspicions increase when it’s heard that one of the organizations that was consulted on the issue, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, stated that the consultations involved feedback on the farm safety organization concept and that mandatory farm worker legislation seemed to be no longer on the table, although a government spokesperson has also stated that no decision has been made pending a final report from the consultants.

That consultant’s report would seem to become instantly suspect once it is released. They would have known the government’s view, ideology and history on the topic. Add to that the reality that the consultants would have consulted mostly with organizations and businesses opposed to any mandatory legislation that would increase their costs. The outcome would be predictable – that being a provincial farm safety organization is the answer with legislation as a last resort. Presto – the issue can be dodged and put off for years to come.

As noted, there is nothing wrong with more safety education and training, but it’s been done before, namely, next door in B.C. I recall years ago a provincially-funded farm safety organization was operated under the auspices of the former B.C. Federation of Agriculture. It was successful, but ultimately it was not the total answer. After a number of years, the B.C. government still found it necessary to implement mandatory farm worker legislation. I would suggest that the Alberta government resist the political temptation and not repeat history.

The other overwhelming impetus for the government to face reality is the fact that the other provincial governments in Canada have mandatory farm worker health and safety legislation in place. Most people would see a message in that precedent – but then those governments must all be wrong if one is to believe the position of the Alberta government on the issue. Perhaps the government needs to hire a consulting firm to ascertain why those governments have it all wrong and they are right. Just to remind the Alberta government; the agriculture industries of the other provinces did not collapse when such legislation was implemented.

The ministers and their bureaucrats should not be engaging in what seems a duplicitous exercise to dodge and delay what is an accepted practice in other provinces and with other sectors of the provincial economy. Instead they should be seeking ways to not only implement farm worker health and safety legislation, but to make it the best, fairest and most advanced in the country. That should be the Alberta way.