Opposition mounts against Alberta farm safety bill

Jodie Sinnema, Edmonton Journal

In the face of mounting criticism and protest rallies drawing thousands of farmers and ranchers across the province, Premier Rachel Notley is forging ahead with her farm safety legislation to protect farm workers from injury and death.

“I will never be able to accept that injuries and deaths caused by workplace accidents are simply a fact of life,” Notley said, hours after more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers rallied on the steps of the Alberta Legislature, calling for her to kill Bill 6.

Notley stood firm and said the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act will pass this fall, with clear amendments that show farms with paid employees — not volunteering neighbours or farm children or family members — must protect those workers with basic safety rules and through Workers’ Compensation in the case of injury. The legislation will give paid workers the right to refuse unsafe work and allow investigators to enter those farms to investigate injuries or fatalities, make recommendations on how to prevent similar accidents in the future and hold workplaces accountable. Family farms or Hutterite colonies that have no paid workers will be exempt.

According to the 2011 Census data, 12,748 farms out of 43,234 farms in Alberta reported having paid labour.

Between 1990 and 2009, an average of 18 people have died each year in agriculture-related accidents. For every one person who died, 25 needed hospitalization, according to statistics from the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research.

Preliminary statistics from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s office indicate there have been 11 farm-related deaths in Alberta this year, as of Nov. 18.

Currently, Occupational Health and Safety has no authority to investigate the farm fatalities, including the death of a 34-year-old man killed on a farm southeast of Black Diamond last month. An internal government document obtained Thursday by the Journal shows the man was making a delivery to the farm when he fell 3-1/2 metres from a tank and was impaled on a ladder.

“This is a farm incident and OHS has no jurisdiction,” the report says.

Notley, who worked as an injury lawyer, said farm injuries can’t be prevented without investigations.

“It (is) quite disturbing that in a province like ours, that is made up of people who want to work together, who help each other out — whether you’re on the farm or in the city — who are modern and progressive and forward-looking, that we somehow have this little exclusion where paid farm workers, who are often the most vulnerable workers we have, are somehow exempted from the most basic of employment protections that you would find in much less progressive jurisdictions,” she said. “To me, this is work that is long overdue because the families and the farm workers themselves need that.”

Notley said her government will pass Bill 6 this fall, then start “extensive and fulsome” consultation with farmers and ranchers to create “common-sense” safety and work regulations that take the unique needs of the farming industry into account. She promised to continue to listen to farmers and to earn back their trust as they see that family farms will remain robust, that children will still be able to do chores, neighbours will still be able to help during times of need, and 4-H and recreational activities on farms will continue.

Notley took full responsibility for confusing messaging around the bill, despite her comments earlier this week that civil servants were at fault.

Groups of farmers and ranchers have hit the highway all week — to an Edmonton rally on Monday, a protest meeting Tuesday in Red Deer, another in Okotoks Wednesday, followed by Thursday’s demonstrations in Edmonton and Lethbridge — and were expected to crowd Medicine Hat for another meeting Friday. The Wildrose party called an “emergency town hall” on the issue Saturday in Bassano, 150 kilometres east of Calgary.

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said the rallies will continue.

“If the government doesn’t relent, they will get bigger,” Jean said, noting 11,000 of Alberta’s farms and ranches are currently represented by NDP MLAs. He led the crowd in chants to “Kill Bill 6!” and said Wildrose MLAs will continue to speak against the bill in the house.

“The government’s town halls on this bill have been an absolute joke,” he said. “The crowds get bigger. The answers get far less clear. Farmers and ranchers tell the government to stop. The government is deaf.

Opposition members criticized the government for its apparent unwillingness to speak in favour of the legislation. In three days of debate, only three New Democrat MLAs — including Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson — defended the bill in the chamber.

“I think the NDP rural MLAs are doing a disservice to their constituents by not standing up for what their constituents are telling them,” Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark said. “They’ve blown their chance to consult on Bill 6 at this point. … They’ve got to go back to the drawing board, start again, start a respectful, honest consultation with farmers all around Alberta and then come back with a new bill in the spring.”

Liberal interim leader David Swann said the province should establish a committee with farmers and farm workers to find common ground and move forward with the bill.

“It’s quite clear this is part of human rights to protect safe and fair compensation, child labour standards,” said Swann, who was not allowed by organizers to address Thursday’s crowd. “It’s part of our international commitment. It’s part of our basic commitment to human right and constitutional rights. The question now is how we go forward.”

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