On December 10, 2015, the Alberta Provincial Government passed Bill 6 – the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranching Workers Act. Until this time, farm and ranch employers were not required to register with the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) or provide any form of workplace insurance for employees. People working on farms have not had the right to request a safety inspection of their workplace, join a union or refuse unsafe work. The Farming and Ranching Exemption regulation didn’t allow health and safety inspectors to enter or conduct investigations on farms and ranches where people, including children, have been seriously injured or killed. As a result, it has been difficult to get a true picture regarding statistics but it is estimated that between 1990 and 2015, 9,000 workers have sustained injuries requiring hospitalization and approximately 400 people have lost their lives on Alberta farms and ranches. 65 were children. In 2014 there were approximately 25 deaths on Alberta farms and ranches. Most recently 3 girls, all members of one family died while playing in a truck loaded with canola and a 10 year old boy was crushed by a forklift he was moving down a road. In comparison, B.C. reported that since implementing health and safety legislation in 1993 workplace injuries have declined by 63% and there have been 50% fewer deaths on farms and ranches.
Bill 6 is being heralded as an important step forward by organizations such as the Farm Workers Union of Alberta (FUA), the Alberta Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). However the legislation has also been met with strong resistance from farmers and ranchers. Concerns were raised that the proposed bill was too vague and would interfere with farming and ranching traditions and lifestyle. In particular, the argument was made that safety legislation would endanger the very essence of the family farm because children, friends and neighbors would not be allowed to take part in chores, brandings, etc. Others are worried about the cost of paying WCB premiums. Farmers and ranchers expressed outrage that they had not been consulted about the proposed legislation and felt it was being “rammed through”.
To provide some historical context, the contents of Bill 6 are not new. The debate about farm and ranch workers’ protection has been going on for over 40 years. Throughout the years, there has been consultation with associations representing both small farms and large agribusiness. Farm worker protection was a part of former Premier Alison Redford’s platform and nearly passed as law in 2013. It was a part of both Rachel Notley’s and Wildrose opposition leader Brian Jean’s election platform in 2015. However, Mr. Jean spoke out strongly against the bill and clearly communicated to his constituents his belief that the legislation would surely kill the family farm economically and culturally. He argued that while he supported the concept of workplace insurance he felt it was unfair to make WCB coverage mandatory as opposed to allowing farmers and ranchers to access private insurance with slightly lower premiums.
However, there are distinct differences between private insurers and the Workers’ Compensation Board. WCB offers no-fault coverage that protects employers against lawsuits. WCB focuses on getting people back to work through the provision of immediate, comprehensive and lifelong support for workers. Finally, WCB works with Occupational Health and Safety to gather data and develop standards and protocols that are aimed at making workplaces safer for everyone.
In regard to the cultural threat suggested by the Wildrose party, Alberta is the last province in Canada to adopt this kind of legislation and while it’s a fact that the family and small farm are an endangered species in Canada, they continue to exist in every other province where safety and workers rights are legislated. I think the real culprits are the erosion of sovereignty and empowerment of farmers and ranchers through trade agreements, defunding and preferential treatment of corporations over citizens provincially, nationally and globally, to name a few. It could be argued that the controversy over Bill 6 is a red herring of sorts that serves to distract farmers and ranchers away from these larger and more serious threats.
In response to concerns and criticism, town hall meetings were organized throughout Alberta and the NDP government has promised to work with farmers and ranchers during the implementation process. To address concerns about clarity, amendments were made to the bill that included exemptions for family farms that do not have paid employees. The Alberta Government posted the amendments and answers to frequently asked questions. Unfortunately, the town hall meetings were typified by booing, jeering, insults, and veiled (and unveiled) death threats. According to many in attendance nothing short of “killing Bill 6” would suffice.
So, what’s going on here in Alberta? Why all the uproar? To put it mildly, we are in transition. As far as I know we are always living in transition, as it is the nature of energy and matter to change constantly. However, this particular transition in Alberta is unique because we’ve been wrenched out of a status quo position through a change in provincial and federal leadership and Bill 6 is an example of that. It has been suggested that the reason it has taken so long to pass the legislation is that under the Conservative government there was no interest in workers’ rights or the political will to pass a bill that would upset voters in rural ridings who typically choose conservative representatives. And what about the workers? Well, it has been my experience as a social worker in rural practice that when farm workers are not afforded the basic rights afforded to workers in other sectors, it has a silencing effect because they do not have any recourse or protection in situations where injuries or death occur, or where they are subjected to dangerous working conditions or abuse. In response to the controversy around Bill 6 I wrote the following opinion editorial:
I have the good fortune of living and working in a rural community and I have also had the privilege of working with individuals and families whose livelihoods depend on farming and ranching. In addition to this, I am proud to be a member of a multigenerational farming family.
Over the years I have observed a trend in regard to farm related injuries and the economic and social ramifications for those who are not covered by workplace insurance. Needless to say, farming and ranching are labour intensive. The work includes a variety of repetitive tasks, risks and hazards. Most people who come to me for help after sustaining an injury do not have insurance. They often continue to work despite their injuries, making the injuries linger and worsen, resulting in permanent disabilities that eventually make it impossible for them to do ranch and farm work. In contrast, those with insurance coverage have a much better chance of recovery, as they are able to maintain a stable income and access rehabilitative services such as physiotherapy and chiropractic care.
Farmers and ranchers who are seriously injured spend more time in hospitals and long term care because there aren’t many options. Access to housing is often affected because many hired men and women, along with their families live on the farms where they work. For them, an injury can also mean a loss of housing. Farm workers paying rent or a mortgage are very vulnerable to losing their homes when injuries happen. Emergency social services does not have the capacity to support those injured for the full amount of time needed for recovery. In addition, there is usually a significant gap between what is provided and what is required to make ends meet. The stress that results takes a substantial toll on individuals and their families.
Farming and ranching are unique because for us it is not just a job, it is about who we are — whether we are working to maintain our own family farms, rich with historical and cultural meaning, or working on farms to support ourselves and those we love. It has been my experience that when people are injured and cannot access the help they need to recover and adapt they lose a part of themselves.
The stress related to loss of income and loss of purpose combine to create feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that can contribute to a variety of psychosocial and emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, addiction and family violence. It is important to consider that in addition to the heartbreak they cause, social problems also come with a very large price tag.
The skill, dedication, hard work and determination of Albertans who work on farms is invaluable to the social and economic integrity of our communities, our province and our country. Alberta farmers, ranchers and farm workers deserve the safety net of insurance coverage that is already legislated in other provinces.
Toby Malloy is the Women’s Vice President of the National Farmers Union and a registered social worker and therapist who also works with her husband on their organic grain, hay and livestock farm near Nanton, Alberta.