The Alberta government announced on Tuesday the creation of a new farm safety advisory council, but the move was immediately panned by those who believe the government has already waited too long to enact legislation to protect agricultural workers.
"No matter how they try to dress it up, this announcement proves the government of Alberta is not willing to stand up for the rights of agriculture workers," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
However, Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden said the new advisory council, with representation from safety organizations, municipalities, agricultural organizations and workers themselves, will examine a number of options -- without overregulating or increasing the financial burden on small farm operations. Primarily, the council will look at farm safety education and training, and recommend an action plan to government.
"We need to have the primary producers and the people who are actually in the industry tell us what is going to be the most effective, so that at the end of the day we're not complicating peoples' lives, we're saving them," Hayden said.
The minister said one of the issues the advisory council will look at is whether some agricultural operations should be covered by provincial occupational health and safety legislation if they are primarily a "commercial or an industrial operation, and not an actual primary producer operation."
But McGowan argues it's now large agribusiness that dominates the farm industry -- and needs solid workplace safety rules -- not small family farms.
Last year, 13 Alberta farm workers died on the job.
Alberta is the only province in Canada that exempts farm operations from worker safety laws.
Provincial court Judge Peter Barley took exception with this exclusion in his January 2009 fatality inquiry report on the 2006 death of farm worker Kevan Chandler at Tongue Creek Feeders near High River.
"No logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm employees," Barley wrote in his report.
Barley recommended that paid farm workers, excluding family members, should be included in legislation governing workplace safety.
The judge's recommendations prompted the government to order a consultation on farm safety, hiring Camrose-based Stroh Consulting to canvass farm organizations and other business groups.
That consultant's report, released by the agriculture department on Tuesday, found that farming is one of the riskiest occupations in Canada and organizations representing workers "say their members feel unprotected and demand some changes."
It also found agriculture is a rapidly changing business, with challenges including employee retention, and language barriers in employing some foreign workers.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including for the government to research what is being done in other provinces, and consider including contractors "carrying out non-agricultural work on farms" under the province's occupational health and safety legislation.
Richard Truscott of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said he is encouraged by the direction the government is moving in, but hopes the advisory group includes actual farmers.
"It's important they hear directly from farmers themselves," Truscott said.
The members of the advisory council will be determined in the new year, government officials said.
Calgary Herald, Wed Nov 24 2010
Byline: Kelly Cryderman and Renata D'alisio