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.
CALGARY-The Alberta Federation of Labour marked the first Alberta Farm Worker Day by announcing a strategy to pressure the Alberta government to include farm workers in the basic employment protections provided to other workers.
"In Alberta, if you work on a farm, you work in an environment with almost no protections. Nothing governs the hours of work, rate of pay or working conditions. You can't refuse unsafe work, and you can't get WCB if you are hurt," says AFL President Gil McGowan. "Farm workers are denied the basic protections all other workers take for granted."
"And looking across the country, Alberta is again at the back of the pack. Alberta offers the worst level of protection for farm workers in the country," observes McGowan. "We are the only province that has not committed to including farm workers in health and safety legislation."
"We are launching a strategy that proclaims "End the Drought!" to bring basic protections to farm workers," announces McGowan. "We hope to persuade the government to follow the lead of other provinces and protect farm workers."
McGowan also notes that the government continues to ignore the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that guarantees farm workers the right to organize unions.
"Things on the farm are different today. Huge hog barns and corporate farms are replacing small family farms. Large operators employ dozens of workers. Farming has changed. So should the law," says McGowan.
"A farm worker's life is about hard work and a constant fear of getting fired or cheated. Speak out and you get blackballed," says Eric Musekamp, President of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta (FUA). "We need legal protections to make our workplaces safer and more fair."
UFCW Canada agricultural worker coordinator, Stan Raper, was also at the announcement. His union has led the fight in Ontario for farm workers. "In Ontario, our Charter challenges brought about political change. We hope it doesn't take that much in Alberta for the government to see that farm workers deserve basic legal protections, just like every other worker," says Raper.
McGowan states that the AFL intends to make protection for farm workers a key issue for the labour movement over the coming months. The first phase of the strategy includes:
- Distributing a leaflet calling on Albertans to pressure the government
- Town hall meetings in rural communities
- Lobbying Human Resources Minister Mike Cardinal
- Asking Albertans to contact their local MLA
- Highlighting the issue in upcoming legislation reviews
Future actions will be determined depending on the response from the first phase.
The FUA called for August 20 to be Alberta Farm Worker Day to highlight the conditions agricultural workers experience. August 20, 1999 was the day a Taber-area farm worker was killed by his employer for overturning a water truck into a ditch.
"The AFL will commemorate Alberta Farm Worker Day as long as the government continues to deny them the basic protections every other worker takes for granted," concludes McGowan.
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For more information
Gil McGowan, AFL President at 780-915-4599(cell)
Jason Foster, AFL Director at 780-483-3021
Policy paper adopted at 2003 AFL Convention, May 1 - 4, 2003
EDMONTON - In light of yesterday's ground-breaking Supreme Court ruling on the rights of farm workers, the Alberta government should move quickly to revise its labour laws to give agricultural workers the right to join unions, says the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court declared yesterday that a section of the Ontario Labour Relations Act which prohibits agricultural workers from joining unions is unconstitutional because it violates the workers' right to freedom of association guaranteed under section two of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
AFL President Les Steel says that the Alberta Labour Code has a similar section restricting the rights of agricultural workers. Agricultural workers in Alberta are also excluded from the Employment Standards Code - meaning they have no legal protection when it comes to things like minimum wage, overtime, hours of work or vacations.
"These restrictions are relics of the past and deserve to be swept away," says Steel. "There's no reason why agricultural workers should not have the same rights as people working in other sectors of the economy."
The exclusions have been on the books for decades - dating back to the time when most farms were small, family-run operations. But Steel says agriculture has evolved into a corporate-style business - with factory farms and large, intensive livestock operations popping up all around the province.
"You can't say that people working in these kinds of large-scale agri-businesses are any different than people working in factories or warehouses," says Steel. "Denying these people the right to organize - and the right to have other protections in the workplace - is wrong, plain and simple."
Steel says he will raise the issue of rights for agricultural workers when he meets with Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford early in the New Year.
"This is not just an academic issue," says Steel. "Every year we get calls from agricultural workers complaining about their conditions of work and asking to join a union. In the past, we've had to explain that the laws were stacked against them. Now, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, we can offer them some hope."
According to Statistics Canada, about 80,000 people are employed in Alberta's agricultural sector.
For further information, contact:
Les Steel, AFL President @ (780) 483-3021 (wk) / (780) 499-4135 (cell)
A provincially-backed farm safety council is expected to find ways to reduce the number of on-farm injuries in Alberta without adding more rules or more costs.
The Alberta government on Tuesday announced it will name a farm safety advisory council in the new year, to be co-chaired by "government and industry" with members from farmer, farm worker and farm safety groups and Alberta municipalities.
"This council will bring industry and government together to find ways to reduce farm injuries without increasing the regulatory and financial burden on our producers," Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden said in a release. "We need to work together to find solutions."
Once it's set up, the province said, the council is expected to develop a "joint industry-government action plan" on farm safety for submission to Hayden and the government, addressing the "co-ordination and communication needs" that the ag industry noted in recent consultations.
That's a reference to consultations by the province's ag and employment departments in 2009 and 2010 with stakeholder groups, including "all of the major commodity groups," on ways to enhance health and safety for people working on farms and ranches.
A report on those consultations put forward a number of recommendations for the province to consider -- such as incentives for farms through lower Workers' Compensation or crop insurance premiums, or increased grants to agricultural societies that undertake health and safety activities.
In Alberta, the report noted, most farming- and ranching-related operations are exempt from the province's Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act, meaning there's no formal OHS investigation of a farm fatality and no government investigation of on-farm injuries for purposes of improved safety practice or third-party reports for insurance claims.
Farming and ranching are also exempt from the Workers' Compensation Act, and while Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) coverage for disability and insurance is available to farmers and ranchers for their employees on a voluntary basis, "costs limit subscriptions," the report noted.
Also, the report noted, the province's Employment Standards Code exempts farm workers from standards on hours of work, overtime, general holiday pay and vacation pay. Farm workers are also excluded from the Labour Relations Code.
The Alberta Federation of Labour on Tuesday criticized the province's proposal for an advisory council as an "empty gesture," with AFL president Gil McGowan predicting the council "will be an industry-dominated joke."
"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," the AFL said.
In his 2008 inquiry into a farm worker's death in 2006 in a silo at a High River-area feedlot, Provincial Court Judge Peter Barley recommended the province lift its exemption excluding farms' paid workers from workplace safety regulations.
"Rather than take that obvious and simple step, we have an industry-dominated advisory body looking at education measures," McGowan said Tuesday. "This is what you get when governments talk only to the business community and not to workers."
The labour group also scoffed at the notion that protections such as employment standards and OHS rules would punish family farms.
"Large agribusiness" dominates the industry, the AFL said Tuesday, with farms of over $250,000 in income accounting for three-quarters of farm cash receipts in 2007.
Country Guide, Wed Nov 24 2010