Because it was getting close to the self-declared “farm-worker day,” it was no coincidence that some of the urban media teamed up with opposition parties and the other usual suspects. Their goal was to bring to light Premier Alison Redford’s leadership campaign promise to bring farm workers into the Occupational Health Standards (OHS) program.
Since Redford won the leadership and the subsequent provincial election, that topic has been buried by the government. No surprise there — it wouldn’t be the first time a successful politician had second thoughts about a promise made during the heat of a campaign after being elected to government. Promises might just be wishful thinking to fool the voter, but actual governing reality is when it hits the wall.
Part of the problem is that when urban politicians make promises about topics on which they have not the slightest clue but want to appear engaged and knowledgeable.
That certainly was the case when leadership candidate Redford promised to bring farm workers under OHS and even WCB. It seemed a reasonable promise, because farm workers are protected with such legislation in every other province except Alberta.
But then, candidate Redford had no actual agriculture advisors to warn her of the nuances of the topic. After winning the leadership, Premier Redford dropped the promise from the PC ag policy platform.
Evidently, the ag policy advice she lacked during the leadership campaign had suddenly come to bear on the political realities of the topic.
But that hasn’t changed the fairness of the case — except that industry lobby organizations and agriculture department bureaucrats have managed to derail the issue by trying to bury it.
I am no fan of the urban media and their opposition allies with their twisted and naive perspective of agriculture and food issues. But as much as it pains me to say this — they are right in this instance to remind the premier of her promise.
The reality is that considering the precedence set by the other nine provinces, implementing mandatory OHS and WCB in Alberta for farm workers should be simple. In fact, Alberta could lead the way to an even better more inclusive program by learning from the mistakes of the other provinces.
But trust the urban media and dumb opposition politicians to screw up what otherwise is a just cause.
Headlines in the Calgary Herald proclaimed that child labour was a critical factor in Alberta agricultural production. They quoted such “farming experts” as David Swann, a Calgary city Liberal MLA, who claimed child labour was involved in harvesting potatoes. He had no proof of this, but then the headline justified the bogus allegation.
I noted that Alberta potato operations are world class and involve machinery worth millions — hardly the place for the inexperienced, particularly children. I added that if child labour is a concern in Alberta, the urban media needs to investigate what goes on in Hutterite colonies. That won’t happen, as the mere thought offends the politically correct, particularly as they purchase their local vegetables from colonies at farmers’ markets. But I digress.
The government’s response to the farm-worker rights PR campaign in the media has been pathetic to say the least. The labour minister responded by lamely stating, “One doesn’t want to interfere with the normal family business or family farm.”
Sure, that perspective might be of some consequence if this was 1940, but today’s agriculture is very large and highly commercialized.
I would suggest that any agricultural operation in this province that has more than three fulltime employees is far beyond being a mere family farm. They’re usually full-scale business enterprises and are quite capable of operating as such, which includes OHS and WCB for its employees.
The fact is most such operations already purchase liability and disability insurance coverage for their employees from private sources that would indicate that they’re fully aware of their obligations.
One expects the government, as usual, to diffuse the issue by starting another study to review the matter. What is actually needed is a study on how to implement mandatory OHS and WCB for farm workers — and, yes, farm owners and their families — that will be the best in Canada.
Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.