At last there's justice in Alberta's farm fields
Tuesday, Nov 24, 2015 06:00 am
Nearly 100 years of waiting for the most basic workplace rights is enough.
Decades of deaths and injuries on farms without investigation, without compensation for the workers, or their widows and orphans, is enough.
Decades of being unable to refuse unsafe work is enough.
Decades of being paid only a few dollars an hour, far below the minimum wage, for dangerous work, of being denied overtime and vacation pay is enough.
Years of promises made and promises broken by Conservative premiers is enough.
The time to act is now and that’s why we at the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) are delighted and relieved that the province has finally taken a major step into the modern era with the announcement that workers in the agricultural sector will be afforded the same protections that every other working Albertan enjoys.
When Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, is passed, this one remaining bastion of 19th century workplace injustice will finally begin to come to an end.
Albertans value fairness. It is one of our core principles. That this unfair situation has endured for so long, thanks to the lobbying efforts of a small minority, has been a stain on our province. Most Albertans will welcome these long-overdue changes with open arms.
Agricultural workers can now expect a minimum wage. Hazards in the workplace will have to be labelled. Workers will have the right to refuse unsafe work without penalty. When they work an especially long day, agricultural workers will have the right to overtime and holiday pay. They will have the right to form a union and to bargain collectively. If agricultural workers are injured, they will have the ability to access Workers’ Compensation. In the event that someone dies at work, there will be an investigation.
Unfortunately, there will be those who continue to push for more time, for more talk, to limit changes to education, without rules or enforcement. There will be claims that family farms will be unable to cope.
This is, of course, nonsense.
Are Alberta farmers less capable than farmers in B.C., Saskatchewan or the rest of Canada? All other farm operations in Canada cope with these kinds of regulations. Alberta’s farmer will do the same.
Meanwhile, let’s address the myth that Alberta’s farm and ranch sector is largely made up of small family farms. This, too, is increasingly untrue.
Farming has changed over the last century. Farms have become bigger, more commercial, more integrated and more dangerous for workers.
The 2011 Agricultural Census showed that about 52.9 per cent of farm workers were employed at operations larger than 1,120 acres in size, and almost 28.9 per cent of them worked on farms larger than 2,880 acres.
Farms with gross annual receipts above $250,000 employed 67.3 per cent of all paid workers. Farms that earned more than $2 million each year comprised only 1.8 per cent of farms but employed 21.5 per cent of all paid workers.
These figures suggest an increasing consolidation of farms into large-scale operations, as well as an increasing concentration of paid, full-time employees working on large, corporate farms as opposed to a multitude of smaller, family-owned farms.
Farming has moved on from soddies on quarter sections. Today, it is much more about large-scale industrial operations using vast and dangerous equipment, and using complex and dangerous chemicals and insecticides.
Those who argue that there haven’t been enough consultations are either woefully misinformed, or are simply engaging in political grandstanding.
Last year, 25 people died in farm-related accidents. There were 16 deaths in 2013 and 10 in 2012. Do we really want to wait any longer, to lose any more lives while we dither and debate?
The first campaign that I undertook when I was elected president of the AFL more than a decade ago was calling on the government to introduce workplace laws in the agriculture sector.
A dozen years – and six premiers – later, there is probably no subject in all of Alberta politics that has been talked about more and about which so little has been done.
I feel a mixture of pride and shame about Bill 6 – pride that my government takes the rights of workers seriously, but shame that my home province has gone so long as the only place in the country that exempted any group of workers from basic workplace protections.
We have waited long enough.
Gil McGowan is the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.