The Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has announced plans to extend occupational health and safety legislation to agricultural workers.
The province is the only one in Canada that excludes farm employees from oh&s protection. But Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier announced on July 7 that he wanted to make safety protections for Alberta farm workers a reality.
“We feel that it’s time that farm workers no longer have an exemption from health and safety regulations,” Carlier told COHSN. “The same regulations that protect other workers should protect farm workers too. So we’re moving forward with that, just to make sure that farm workers, as all workers, have at least a little bit more of an opportunity to get home safe and sound every night.”
Carlier added that the legal details and timing would be up to the Ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, headed by Lori Sigurdson. “I’m still hoping sooner better than later, but I have no actual timelines,” he said.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said that he and his organization were very pleased with the ministry’s proposition. “We’re thrilled that the Notley government is living up to its commitment to extend basic workplace health and safety protection to agricultural workers,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s long overdue.”
McGowan noted that every other Canadian province had already managed to establish a successful oh&s system for farm workers. “This isn’t rocket science,” he added. “The only shame in the situation is that it’s taken the election of a New Democrat government to do what should have been done literally decades ago.”
Carlier, whose NDP government had taken power in May, said he didn’t know why Alberta still lacked basic oh&s coverage for agriculture.
“I can’t speak on previous governments,” said Carlier, “but I know previous governments had been working forward. They had consultations and discussions with stakeholders, and we’re taking that a step further.
“I really don’t know why it’s taken so long, but the time has come to make the change.”
Last fall, then-Premier Jim Prentice stated that he would consider extending oh&s legislation to large-scale farms, but wanted to see more research on the problem before committing.
According to McGowan, the delay was largely attributable to lobbying in the province’s business community – “trying to give the impression that the sky will fall if basic workplace health and safety protections are extended to agricultural workers,” he explained.
“But this is nothing more than self-interested and overheated rhetoric. There is absolutely nothing to fear from extending these kinds of protections to agricultural workers and much to gain in terms of improved workplace health and safety.”
McGowan added that the lobbyists have remained opposed to oh&s coverage “because they’ve been given a free ride for so long. Apparently it’s difficult for them to realize that the party’s over. These kinds of basic workplace health and safety protections will not bankrupt any businesses, but they almost certainly will save lives.”
Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta (FUA), said that he was also optimistic with the direction in which the government was heading.
“I actually had a lengthy meeting with the minister,” he said, referring to Carlier. “He made that pledge to me personally and asked that I be a little bit patient and wait for him to make an announcement.
“I’m quite convinced that the ministry is sincere.”
The FUA has also met with the provincial Health, Education, Transportation and Environment Ministers to discuss safety protection for farming, Musekamp added. “They are in favour of doing this. They want to do it. They consider it to be an abomination to have these Dickensian standards in agriculture.”
Musekamp said he had advised Carlier to adopt oh&s legislation similar to that of British Columbia. “We proposed that the Alberta Federation of Agriculture be the entity from the agriculture side to deal with the government in bringing forward the reforms.” The Federation president had agreed with the union’s proposal to establish a farm and ranch training society similar to British Columbia’s.
Carlier acknowledged having had “frank” discussions with Musekamp on farm safety. “We’re looking at various models, but we need to have something that’s going to be made for Alberta and work for Alberta, both the producers and the workers,” he noted.
“Ultimately, I’m hoping for equality at law for farm workers, so that a farm worker’s the same as any other worker,” said Musekamp.