2005 End the Drought Farmworkers Campaign Launch

Speech by Gil McGowan
At "End the Drought!" Campaign Launch
Calgary, August 20, 2005

Good morning. My name is Gil McGowan and I'm president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

For those who are not familiar with our federation, we are the umbrella group representing unions in the province.

More specifically, we represent 29 unions in both the public and private sectors, who, in turn, represent about 120,000 Alberta workers.

But this morning, we're not here to talk about our members. We're not here to talk about those who are already represented.

Instead, we're here to talk about a forgotten group of workers.

We're here to talk about a group of people who are at the heart of our province's traditional economy, but who have been abandoned on the margins of our legal system.

The group that I'm talking about, of course, is farm workers.

In an effort to bring Alberta farm workers 'in from the margins' the AFL has decided to designate August 20th as Farmer Workers Day. This will be the first of what we hope will become an annual event.

We're also here to launch a lobbying campaign aimed at shining a public spotlight on the problems faced by farm workers in Alberta.

In particular, it is our intention to educate members of the Legislative Assembly and convince them to update the workplace laws governing farm workers so that they better reflect the realities we face in the 21st century.

In many ways farm workers have been enduring a drought when it comes to legal protections; that's why we're calling the plan we're unveiling today the 'End the Drought' campaign.

To help me launch this campaign this morning, we've invited two special guests.

To my left, we have Eric Musekamp. Eric is President of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta, or FUA for short.

For several years now, Eric has been a lonely voice trying to draw attention to the plight of farm workers. With this event today, we are signaling that Eric will no longer be alone in his work: the broader labour movement is also taking up the cause.

Our other special guest is Stan Raper. Stan is the Agriculture Worker Coordinator for the United Food and Commercial Workers union. UFCW has taken the lead among unions in organizing farm workers in Canada, and Stan has been the man directing most of that important work.

As far as the agenda for this morning goes, we'll break our presentation into four main sections.

First, I will outline the nature of the problem facing farm workers in Alberta, and I will talk about what our Federation plans to do about it.

Second, Eric will talk about what it's like to actually be a farm worker here in Alberta in 2005, and why, from his perspective, legal changes are so desperately needed.

Third, Stan will provide us with a national perspective on the issue of workplace protections for farm workers. In particular, he'll tell us about some of the progress that's been made in other provinces; progress which highlights just how much ground farm workers here in Alberta still have to make up.

Fourth, and finally, we'll open the floor for questions, and afterwards, we'll all make ourselves available for one-on-one interviews.

So who are we talking about when we talk about farm workers and just how bad are things for them?

As it stands right now, there are about 12,000 people working as farm or agricultural employees in Alberta.

About 25 percent of these people work on a temporary or seasonal basis. And about 300 are classified as foreign or migrant labourers.

But the rest - the vast majority - are full-time, permanent workers who make their homes in our communities.

Some of them work in nurseries and market gardens. Some of them work in mushroom farms or greenhouses.

But the majority work in animal production. You'll find them working on ranches, in huge hog barns and on sprawling feed lots around the province.

When it comes to the challenges these workers face, it can be boiled down simply.

The problem in a nutshell is that farm workers in our province are excluded from almost all of the legal, workplace protections that other Albertans take for granted.

Other workers are covered and protected by laws like the Employment Standards Code, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Workers' Compensation Act and the Labour Code.

These laws provide the basic legal framework of protections that most working Albertans take for granted. They guarantee rights and provide a safety net.

But farm workers here in Alberta fall outside that legal framework. They have no safety net.

More specifically, farm workers are either fully or partially excluded from all of the laws I've mentioned and denied the protections that those laws provide.

As a result, if you're a farm worker in Alberta today you work in an extremely insecure environment.

You're excluded from most provisions of the Employment Standards Code - so you have no protection when it comes to things like hours of work. You're not guaranteed a minimum wage. You're not entitled to overtime. You don't get statutory holidays or vacation pay.

If you're a farm worker in Alberta, you're also excluded from the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workers Compensation Act. So you don't have the right to refuse unsafe work and, in most cases, you're not entitled to compensation if you're injured on the job.

If you're a farm worker in Alberta, you're also excluded from the Labour Code. So you don't have the right to join a union. You don't have the right of association that's guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and which is, or will soon be, available to farm workers in every other province.

As a result of all these exclusions, Alberta is once again, at the back of the pack when compared to other provinces. Farm workers here in our province have fewer rights and fewer workplace protections that their counterparts in any other part of the country.

We have fewer employment standards protections for farm workers; we are the last to recognize farm workers right to organize; and we are the only province that has not committed to including farm workers in health and safety legislation.

So, Alberta may be number one in oil, gas and cattle - but we are dead last when it comes to protecting the rights and interests of farm workers.

That's why we're here today. And that's why we're launching our campaign to 'End the Drought' for farm workers.

The work that these workers do is valuable. It's also often hard and dangerous. And we believe they deserve the same kind of legal protections that are available to other Albertans working in other sectors of the economy.

Defenders of the status quo will say that agriculture is a special case. They will say that the rules in place for other workers are not appropriate for farm workers.

A generation or two ago that may have been the case. Back then, that majority of agricultural production in Alberta came from family farms - where the workers were usually the farmers themselves or members of their families.

But today, the small family farm is being pushed aside by agri-business. More and more of our agricultural products are being produced by corporations on factory farms.

Green Acres is being replaced by Hogs-R-Us.

As a result, farm workers are not relatives or friends of the family, they are employees. And the employers are not struggling small farmers, they are profitable corporations.

As employees, we think that farm workers should have the same rights as other employees in the province. As profitable corporations, we think big agricultural employers should have the same obligations to their workers as other employers in the province.

To put it simply, farming in Alberta has changed, and we think the law needs to change to reflect those changes. It's time to end the drought in legal protection for farm workers.

And it's time to end the free ride for agricultural employers.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of our campaign, we've produced a leaflet that we plan to distribute around the province. We're going to be holding town hall meetings in in targeted communities. And we're going to be lobbying the Human Resources Minister and other MLAs.

Our goal is to bring our farm labour laws into the 21st century, and we're going to make it really easy for our politicians.

We're not asking for the moon. All we want is four small amendments to four pieces of Legislation. It's work that the government could accomplish in a day or two if there was a will.

At this point, we remain optimistic. From our perspective the need for these changes is clear. It simply no longer makes any sense to leave farm workers out in the cold.

We hope the government will see basic inequity and injustice here - and we hope they will do the right thing and make sure farm workers are no longer relegated to the status of second class citizens.

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