Excluding farm workers from workplace protections a legal minefield - allows unsafe work to continue
Edmonton - Reports that the Conservative government is likely to ignore an Alberta judge's recommendations to include farm workers in health, safety and employment standards legislation is a step down a dangerous path, says Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"By excluding farm workers from work-related rights and protections, the government of Alberta is going against the recommendations of one of its own judges and, clearly, acting unconstitutionally," says McGowan. "This is a dangerous path to opening themselves up to unnecessary litigation and more judicial inquiries when serious injuries or deaths inevitably occur."
A judicial inquiry in 2008 saw Alberta judge Peter Barley recommend the inclusion of farm workers in laws ensuring workplace protections.
Alberta remains the only province where farm workers are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, as well as legislation governing hours of work and overtime, statutory holidays, vacation pay, the right to refuse unsafe work, being informed of work-related dangers and compensation if they are injured on the job.
A 2006 Ontario court decision forced that province to change its laws, leaving Alberta the only place in Canada where farm workers are denied basic workplace protections. The Ontario decision was based on a Charter challenge which argued that singling out farm workers was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The real dangers in excluding farm workers from workplace legislation lie in the government continuing to allow unsafe and potentially exploitative working environments to continue. "In the nine years the Alberta government has said it is 'consulting' on how to improve safety for agricultural workers, 160 people have died on farm worksites," says McGowan, adding that thousands of farm-related injuries are reported every year.
"This government likes to pretend that it represents rural Alberta. But thousands of rural Albertans are working on feedlots and other commercial agribusiness operations without rules governing their pay, hours of work, or right to compensation if they're hurt on the job. That's not representation. It's willful exploitation," adds McGowan.
The government claims that work-related protections, such as employment standards and occupational health and safety rules, will punish family farms. That argument is not based on fact. Large agribusiness dominates the industry. Farms with income over $250,000 accounted for three-quarters of farm cash receipts in 2007. At the same time, almost all "family farms" see owners having to work off-farm in order to make a living.
General farm workers earned an average of $13.13 per hour with a 46.6-hour work week in 2007, significantly below the average Alberta wage rate of $23.90 per hour.
Media Contact: Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour (780) 218-9888