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
The number of deaths is down from the previous year -- when 23 people were killed -- and below the provincial average of 18.
The figures come as industry awaits word on whether the province will rework its workplace safety legislation to include farms. A judge called on the Stelmach government more than a year ago to make the changes after a man died while cleaning out a grain silo at a High River feedlot.
Alberta's labour and agriculture ministers, who are reviewing an industry consultation on the matter, haven't said when they'll decide whether to make the changes, but signs are stacking up against the move.
Last week, Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden directed $715,000 to the province's farm safety programs -- an education-first approach the Alberta government has long championed over legislative change. The minister, who wasn't available for comment, told the legislature last week the government is "concentrating on reducing fatalities and injuries rather than regulating and legislating what takes place there."
Farms have been exempted from the Occupational Health and Safety Act since 1977, and in recent years, labour leaders have renewed the push to rewrite the legislation.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said it's frustrating the government has resisted the changes for so long.
"It's become clear the government doesn't plan to make any significant changes to the workplace rules, and that they, in fact, don't recognize this is a serious problem," McGowan said.
Eric Musekamp of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta welcomed the drop in 2009 fatalities, but said he hopes the figures won't be used as a political ploy by the government to avoid crafting new workplace safety laws. "My discomfort is from thinking the government is going to trumpet this as some sort of success," Musekamp said.
"Farm workers suffer mightily from the exclusion. I intend to keep chewing away at it, and I'm hopeful we can impress upon the government they need to do this thing."
The 2009 farm-related fatality figures were compiled by the provincial medical examiner's office for Alberta Agriculture, and haven't yet been finalized.
In 2008, Alberta saw deaths on farms spike to 23, including six children.
Laurel Aitken, a provincial farm safety co-ordinator with Alberta Agriculture, said 2008 was a "really tragic year," particularly considering the number of children killed, and said Alberta has been working hard to keep farms safe.
"We have a lot of resource development we do. We spend quite a bit of effort on awareness and doing campaigns to bring safety front of mind for people," she said.
Last week, Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor grilled Hayden and Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk in the legislature over when the government will move on the provincial judge's recommendations.
Lukaszuk said the Stelmach government is committed to farmer safety, but suggested industry will have to "wait and see," whether any action will be taken.
Calgary Herald, Tues Mar 23 2010
Byline: Jamie Komarnicki
March 2009: Rights for farm workers; Health and safety postcard campaign; Project 2012 Booklet; Save the Wheat Board
Rights for Farm Workers!
- The AFL is joining with UFCW Canada in a campaign to include farm workers in Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act. The campaign is a result of a recent fatality inquiry into the death of Kevan Chandler on a farm near Black Diamand. The Judge recommended that one of the best ways to prevent future fatalities is to include farm workers in OH&S legislation. Farming has changed. It's time the laws changed with it! Find out what you can do to help farm workers ...
- The economy has hit the skids, but now is not the time for a return to the days of cutbacks, privatization and royalty rollbacks. There is another way to tackle the economic downturn. Public Interest Alberta's 3rd Annual Advocacy Conference is looking at how we can broaden the scope of public solutions to keep Alberta working, and make us greener at the same time. "Beyond Band-Aids and Bailouts: Public Solutions in Critical Times" runs April 3 - 5 in Edmonton. Speakers include Judy Rebick, Elaine Bernard and Dr. Robert Woollard. Register for the Conference ...
- In 2007, 154 workers were killed at work. Last year another 166 lost their lives because of their jobs. There is no better reason than that for changing Alberta's safety laws. The AFL's Health and Safety Committee has launched a postcard campaign aimed at making Joint H&S Committees mandatory in all workplaces. Alberta is the only province to have voluntary joint committees. And it is proven that joint committees save lives. Join the campaign! Bundles of the postcards are available at the AFL office. Call (780-483-3021) to request some and get your members and neighbours to sign them. See a sample of the postcard ...
Spirit of Labour
- Sometimes to get our inspiration, we need to look at our past. The miners of the Crowsnest Pass can teach us much about courage, solidarity and organizing for victory. The story of the working families of the Crownest Pass has been captured in a moving booklet recently released by Project 2012, the celebration of the AFL's Centennial being organized by the AFL and the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI). This is the first of a series of five booklets popularizing key moments in Alberta's labour history, to be released each year leading up to 2012. Read "Spirit of the Crowsnest" ...
Save the Wheat Board!!
- Since their election, the Harper Conservatives have had an aggressive agenda to undermine and break up the Canada Wheat Board. At every available opportunity they have attacked the single-desk monopoly of the Board and promoted the rump group of farmers who want to sell their grain on the open market. The Conservatives have run fraudulent votes and even contravened government law (according to the courts) in their effort to chip away at one of the most effective mechanisms for farmers. The Board has been proven time and time again to return high prices to farmers for their grain - higher than they could get on their own.
- The National Farmers Union and supporters of the Wheat Board are locked in a battle for the very existence of the Wheat Board. And they need your help! Whether you live in a rural community or in a big city, you need to add your voice to those trying to save the Wheat Board. Take action now!
Economics for EveryoneJoin Jim Stanford, Chief Economist for the CAW, to talk about the state of the economy and what it means for workers. Stanford will be discussing his latest book "Economics for Everyone" and looking at the state of the economy from a worker perspective.
Co-sponsored by Parkland Institute
Wednesday April 22
Thursday April 23
Chateau Lacombe Crowne Plaza
Did you know ...
Temporary Foreign Workers in Alberta
Permanent Immigrants Arriving in Alberta
Because he was a farmworker, government safety officers didn't investigate, and the employer could not be held accountable for the accident. His wife couldn't get WCB benefits, and his kids were left without a father.
This is because under Alberta law, farm workers are not covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, or any other labour law. They are denied the basic rights the rest of us take for granted.
Judge Calls for Safety Inclusion
In 2008, a fatality inquiry was called to explore the causes of Kevan's death and to examine ways to prevent similar deaths in the future. In January 2009, Judge Peter Barley released his findings.
Judge Barley states that Kevan's death could have been prevented if farm workers had been included in occupational safety legislation. He recommends changing the law:
"It is recommended that paid employees on farms should be covered by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, RSA 2000 Ch. O-2, with the same exemption for family members and other non-paid workers that apply to non-farm employers." (p. 7)
Join the Campaign for Farm Workers
UFCW Canada has launched a campaign to pressure the Alberta government to include farm workers in safety legislation. UFCW represents farm workers in B.C., Ontario and Manitoba, and are now extending their campaign for farm-worker rights to Alberta.
They have set up a website, and launched a letter writing campaign.
Help farm workers achieve basic safety protections. Here is what you can do:
- Tell the Alberta government to start taking farm safety seriously by sending a quick e-mail to Premier Ed Stelmach that calls for the immediate implementation of Justice Barley's recommendations.
- Encourage your family members, friends, co-workers and neighbours to help make a difference by joining the End the Harvest of Death campaign.
Together we can make sure that Kevan Chandler's death was not in vain.
An inquiry into the death of a man killed while working on a farm two years ago will open today -- a hearing labour officials hope will highlight the "deeply flawed" workplace safety legislation in the province.
The inquiry -- scheduled for two days in Okotoks -- will examine the events surrounding the death of Kevan Chandler, who was buried under grain on June 18, 2006, while working at Tongue Creek Feeders in High River.
At the time, Chandler's widow, Lorna, wrote an open letter to Premier Ralph Klein asking to change workplace legislation to include farms, saying safety rules would have saved her husband's life.
While the aim of fatality inquiries is for a judge to make recommendations to prevent similar incidents, the
Alberta Federation of Labour hopes it will bring about substantive changes to farm worker safety in Alberta.
"Alberta is still in the 19th century when it comes to workplace rights for farm workers," federation president Gil McGowan said Tuesday.
"We're hoping the inquiry will find that the system for ensuring workplace health and safety for farmers is deeply flawed."
According to the Alberta Farm Safety Centre, farmers are five times more likely to die from a work-related incident than workers in all other industries.
Last year 12 people died in such incidents -- eight fewer than in 2006, when Chandler was killed.
But under current provincial legislation, farming-related deaths and injuries do not fall under workplace health and safety legislation, following an exemption made to the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1977.
The farm safety co-ordinator for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development said the legislation exempts any primary agriculture, such as raising livestock or crops.
However, value-added farm industries -- nurseries, greenhouses and mushroom farms, for example -- are included, Laurel Aitken said.
It's a difficult area for the safety act to cover because the farm is sometimes a combination of a workplace and a home.
"No one comes into your home and says, 'Why are you using the ladder you did to clean out the eavestroughs?' " she said. "It's a very grey area in terms of where does the home end and the farm start."
McGowan, however, said there is no excuse for why people like Chandler don't have the same rights and protections as workers in other industries.
"It's not clear that extending workplace safety to farm workers would have saved Kevan's life, but it may have," he said.
The fact that Chandler's death has led to a fatality inquiry is largely owed to work done by his widow, said McGowan.
"She refused to let the issue die," he said.
Still, said Liberal MLA David Swann, the inquiry is coming more than two years after Chandler died.
Swann, who has spoken out often about the discrepancy in workplace safety legislation when it comes to farm workers, said an inquiry should be held for every farming-related death.
In discussions with Albertans, he said, people ask if the province ensures healthy, equal working conditions for all workers in the province.
"We have to say no. There is a unique experience for farm workers in this province," he said.
Calgary Herald, Wed Oct 22 2008
Byline: Gwendolyn Richards
Recent deaths raise question of workplace safety: Complaints to province have 'fallen upon deaf ears,' victim's wife says
EDMONTON - Not even two years after Lorna Chandler's husband was crushed in a grain silo at a feedlot near High River, one of his employers also died in a silo-related workplace accident.
Chandler feels sure her 35-year-old husband, Kevan, would have survived if there had been a rope and a way to secure the harness that was on site. Her husband's boss was also unsecured when he fell to his death from the top of a silo last Tuesday, she said.
"If he had a rope and harness, too, I'm quite sure he'd be alive," Chandler said Monday, following an annual ceremony at City Hall honouring lost and injured workers.
Chandler is frustrated because no one in the provincial government seems to be doing anything to stop these easily preventable deaths.
"What I'm trying to say has fallen upon deaf ears."
Last year, 154 Albertans died in workplace accidents, making it the worst year for fatalities since 1982. In addition, more than 175,000 people were injured while working.
It's time to connect the tragedy of workplace deaths with the causes, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said at the ceremony. Weak safety laws and lax enforcement send a message that the government doesn't take worker safety seriously, he said. "A worker is injured every three minutes every day in Alberta. We all know Albertans like to be number one. We're number one in investment. We're number one in growth. We're also number one in workplace deaths."
Simple guardrails costing as little as $30 could have saved the life of his grandson, said Leonard Brennan. But no one was doing the inspections required to find the "ongoing death trap" at his grandson's worksite.
Jahryn Kozak, 20, was killed Dec. 13, 2004, while working for Fitzgerald Construction. He became entangled in an unguarded tail pulley while cleaning excess gravel from the ground under a rock crusher. He was pronounced dead at the worksite.
Brennan noted that the company got a charitable donation receipt for almost all of the $300,000 it was ordered to pay as punishment because it went towards the Alberta Workers' Health Centre, a non-profit society which assists workers to improve workplace health and safety. Though he praised the work done by the centre, Brennan found it disturbing that the company would benefit in any fashion from what was supposed to be punishment. "I felt like throwing up when I heard that," he said.
Meanwhile, the Alberta NDP slammed the government for refusing to place limits on working alone in a worksite.
Employment critic Rachel Notley released a government official's e-mail from last week that nixed a proposal to let the employment minister ban working alone on certain unsafe sites.
A working group of industry, government and labour officials asked for the move.
Kenn Hample, provincial safety specialist co-ordinator, rejected that idea outright, saying in the e-mail that the province doesn't want to be "interjecting a government decision into the operation of a worksite," when the government prefers companies practice "internal responsibility" for their actions.
Notley called the proposal "hesitant first steps" that would have modestly improved worker safety in Alberta.
Edmonton Journal, Tues Apr 29 2008
Byline: Hanneke Brooymans and Jason Markusoff
Alberta's provincial opposition is calling for the province's labour standards code and job safety legislation to include farm workers.
Liberal Leader Kevin Taft on Monday called for the Stelmach government to expand the Employment Standards Code and the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include protections for farm workers and adopt a farm safety program to promote safety in the farming community.
"Alberta's farm workers have no protection regarding hours of work and overtime, no statutory holidays or vacation pay, no right to refuse unsafe work, and no compensation if they are injured on the job," Taft said, accusing the Tories of dodging the issue of farm safety.
"Injuries and deaths on Alberta farms continue to be a burden on farm families. In some of these cases, farm worker safety standards could have prevented incidents from happening, and provide the needed support when incidents do occur."
Edmonton MLA Hugh MacDonald, the Liberals' employment critic, said in a release Monday that safety standards for all workers must be improved and properly enforced.
The Liberals made their statements as part of the International Day of Mourning for Workers Killed or Injured on the Job. According to the Alberta Federation of Labour, 166 Albertans, including 154 of what it called "officially 'recognized'" workers and 12 farm workers, lost their lives for work-related reasons in 2007.
AFL president Gil McGowan said in a separate release that 2007 saw the most work-related fatalities in the province since 1982 and the sixth-highest total in provincial history, with 28 work-related deaths so far in 2008 -- a tally McGowan blamed on the province's current boom.
"Employers are cutting corners on training and safety procedures to meet the huge demand," he said. "The result is more accidents. Many workers choose to walk away from unsafe jobs rather than pressure for more safety, meaning bad employers don't improve. And the government is not doing enough inspections and enforcement."
While it's still early in 2008, he said, "if we continue to lose workers at this rate, we will kill 170 workers in 2008, which will be the highest number since the Hillcrest Mine disaster in 1914."
Lorna Chandler, whose husband died in June 2006 in an accident on a farm near High River, said in the Liberals' release that "farm workers deserve the same on the job protection as everyone else."
Farm Business Communications, Mon Apr 28 2008
The provincial government came under fire in the legislature Wednesday for its lack of workplace safety laws for farm workers, the day after a feedlot owner fell from a silo to his death west of High River.
This is not the first farm death in the area. The 52-year-old man -- identified as Brian Morrison -- died at Roseburn Ranches on Tuesday, just a short distance from where one of his family's employees was killed in a silo two years ago.
Kevan Chandler, 36, died in June 2006 after being buried by an avalanche of grain at the Morrison family's nearby Tongue Creek Feeders.
Ever since his death, Chandler's widow Lorna has made it her self-described mission to push for workplace safety laws for farm workers. She said Tuesday this most recent death just goes to show how badly the Alberta government needs to take action.
"I thought they would have learned something or done something," said Chandler, 32, who works as a high school janitor in Black Diamond.
"I think they should get off their butts and improve the safety standards."
Alberta and Nova Scotia are the only provinces where workplace safety standards don't apply to farms. In Alberta, farm owners don't have to be part of the workers' compensation program, and the government doesn't have to investigate fatalities like it does for other industries. Farm workers are also barred from unionizing.
In Alberta last year, there were 12 farm-related fatalities, according to Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. This year, including the most recent death in High River, the figure sits at four.
The opposition Liberals grilled Agriculture Minister George Groeneveld on the issue during question period Tuesday.
"Will this government finally concede that workers on corporate farms need the same protection through workplace safety legislation as other workers in the province?" Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said.
"How many farmers have to die in Alberta before this government takes action?"
Groeneveld said: "Farms are very unique worksites . . . families live, work, they play in these areas. We're talking about education, I suspect, more than rules."
He added that farms are dangerous places to work, but suggested that more rules aren't the answer. "We make seatbelt rules and look at what happens."
Later in an interview, Groeneveld said his government will have another look at the issue.
"A lot of these farms are big business now and they're corporate farms, and I will sit down with the minister of employment and immigration."
Regarding his comments in the legislature, Groeneveld added: "I'm certainly not against seatbelt legislation."
But those who have pushed for laws for farm workers say the government is unwilling to consider workplace safety laws for the sector, and promises to take another look at developing rules ring hollow.
"I will believe it when they actually do something," said Jason Foster, director of policy analysis at the Alberta Federation of Labour.
Shortly after Kevan Chandler's death in 2006, then-human resources minister Mike Cardinal said he would review whether workplace safety standards should be extended to farm workers. The NDP later obtained documents showing that Cardinal had rejected a recommendation from a government panel to do so, just weeks earlier.
Foster said the provincial government favours the interests of corporate farms rather than workers. Other provinces have been able to make workplace safety laws for workers at larger corporate farms without introducing onerous rules for family farms, he said.
However, Danielle Smith of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said farms are different from other businesses, and tax incentives for purchasing safety equipment would be a better strategy for the government to pursue.
She said it's difficult to draw the line between a family farm and large-scale operations.
"When you've got this hybrid home/farm operation, it gets really tricky," Smith said.
In High River on Wednesday, family and friends were focused on their mourning for Morrison.
"It's very sad news. He was a great neighbour," said Mac Brocklebank, who farms near both Roseburn Ranches and Tongue Creek Feeders.
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Recent Farm Deaths
- April: A 52-year-old man is killed after falling almost 30 metres from a grain silo at Roseburn Ranches Ltd., just west of High River.
- March: A 52-year-old man, a resident of a Hutterite colony near New Dayton, southeast of Lethbridge, dies after becoming entangled in farm machinery.
- December 2007: Michael Collett, 46, dies while loading grain into a truck from a wooden bin on his farm, 12 kilometres south of Taber. He was buried under grain while working alone in the bin.
- June 2006: Kevan Chandler, a 36-year-old father of two from Black Diamond, dies after an avalanche of grain buries him inside a silo at Tongue Creek Feeders, a High River feedlot.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Apr 24 2008
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) today urged Employment, Immigration and Industry Minister Iris Evans to extend basic employment rights and protections to Alberta farmworkers. In a letter to the Minister, AFL President Gil McGowan suggested that the issue needs to be dealt with now to prevent future tragedies in the industry.
"It is unconscionable that the only time attention is paid to the plight of farmworkers is in the aftermath of tragedies like the recent fatal traffic accident in BC or the death of Kevan Chandler on a farm near Black Diamond last June," says McGowan.
"I have asked Minister Evans to act now to extend basic workplace protections to Alberta farmworkers," says McGowan.
According to McGowan, Alberta farmworkers enjoy even less protection than their counterparts in BC. "Alberta farmworkers have no basic employment protections such as minimum wage, limits on hours of work, rest breaks, overtime or statuary holiday pay" says McGowan. "They enjoy no health and safety protection, nor do they qualify for WCB when they get injured."
McGowan has asked for a meeting to discuss the urgency of the issue with the Minster.
"If we begin the process to correct this social injustice now," concludes McGowan, "we can prevent future farmworker fatalities and suffering in Alberta."
For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, AFL President Cell: (780) 218-9888
The death of Kevan Chandler in a farm accident near Black Diamond, Alberta that left his wife, Lorna, and two young children in dire financial straits tragically illustrates the need for immediate government action to protect farmworkers.
"It is unforgivable for the Alberta government to continue to exclude farmworkers from basic employment standards and occupational health and safety (OH&S) regulations in the light of this tragedy," says AFL President Gil McGowan. "We need occupational health and safety regulations for farmworkers and mandatory WCB coverage for farmworkers," says McGowan. "The first may have prevented this tragedy and the second would have at least ensured that the widow and her children were financially secure."
Other provinces, like Ontario and Manitoba are already moving to correct this fundamental injustice with Ontario already covering farmworkers under health & safety regulations and Manitoba moving to include farmworkers under employment standards legislation. "It is past time for Alberta to stop treating farmworkers like second class citizens," says McGowan, "and to bring its legislation into the 21st century."
"August 20th is National Farmworkers Day," (click here for more on Farmworker Day) notes McGowan. "We don't want to be marking it every year with another memorial for farmworkers killed on the job. It's time for this government to act."
In an effort to provide some immediate assistance for Lorna Chandler and her two young children, the Alberta Federation of Labour has raised $3000 for her which will be presented at a fund-raiser in Turner Valley organized by the Farmworkers Union of Alberta on Sunday, August 20th at 12:00 noon.
Further support will be considered at the next AFL Executive Council meeting scheduled for October, 2006.
For more information on the AFL's End the Drought campaign for farmworkers, click here.
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For more information contact:
Gil McGowan, AFL President @ 780-218-9888 (cell)