Edmonton - The Alberta government announcement that it is forming an advisory council on farm safety is a stab in the back for all farm workers, says the Alberta Federation of Labour.
"Once again, the government has chosen to waste a real opportunity to improve working conditions on farms and ranches," says Gil McGowan, president of the AFL, which represents 140,000 workers. "Once again, the government has chosen to listen to the agribusiness lobby and ignore the voices of working people, of safety advocates and even a provincial judge."
The move to create a council to advise the government on how to "enhance farm safety education and training" is an empty gesture. The government says the council will be co-chaired by industry and government, but no leadership role is given to workers or their advocates - the people whose lives are on the line.
"This council will be an industry-dominated joke. Following on Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk's refusal to act on recommendations to increase minimum wage, it shows just how little the minister is willing to do for our most vulnerable workers. Much like Energy Minister Ron Liepert's advisory committee on energy policy, it shows who really calls the shots in this province - big-business pressure groups," says McGowan.
Alberta remains the only province that maintains 19th century rules 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. 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.
In 2008, after being asked by the Premier to investigate the workplace death of Kevan Chandler, Justice Peter Barley recommended that farm workers must be included in Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) to prevent future workplace injuries and deaths.
"Rather than take that obvious and simple step, we have an industry-dominated advisory body looking at education measures! It is completely inadequate and an absolute failure by the province to protect agricultural workers," says McGowan. "This is what you get when governments talk only to the business community and not to workers."
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.
Gil McGowan, President, Alberta Federation of Labour @ 780-218-9888 (cell)