Labour of love or labour of pain?
When Alberta Conservatives were toppled by the NDP in the 2015 election after 44 years, the aftershocks were felt throughout the province and across the country. But when it came to Bill 6, the province’s new farm labour bill, reaction was swift and explosive.
On November 17 of last year, Alberta Jobs Minister Lori Sigurdson introduced Bill 6: Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. A series of heated protests and community meetings ensued, increasing the tension between the province’s agricultural producers and the very new and green government.
David Swann, the leader of the Alberta Liberal party, deemed the bill long overdue, but the official opposition, the Wildrose Party, denounced the process as rushed and demanded more farmer consultation. So what exactly is Bill 6 and just what is all the fuss about?
HEALTH & SAFETY
On the surface, Bill 6 seemed like a positive measure all around, making some 43,000 farms and ranches and their 60,000 workers subject to occupational health and safety rules. Under the bill, farm and ranch workers who were injured on the job would also qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. New rules would take effect regarding labour relations and employment standards covering such items as hours, minimum wages, vacation pay and young worker safety. As well, workers could join unions and refuse unsafe work without fear of termination.
Perhaps the timeliest provision allowed investigators to look into serious injuries or deaths on a farm’s commercial area. In 2014, there were 25 deaths from farm-related accidents in Alberta, compared to 16 in 2013. On October 13, 2015, three young sisters died on the family farm after they were buried and suffocated while playing in a truckload of canola seed. Then on November 21, a 10-year-old boy died after the forklift he was driving rolled into a ditch at a family farm. The tragedies drew national attention to Alberta — the only jurisdiction in the country without employment standards for farm and ranch workers.
While agricultural groups in Alberta applauded the focus on worker safety, they had serious concerns that many aspects of Bill 6 were presented too quickly and without adequately consulting the farming community. One big complaint was that the bill would apply to everyone on the farm, even family, friends or neighbours just lending a hand, such as at spring brandings.
Just two weeks after introduction of the bill, more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers voiced their concerns with a protest outside the provincial legislature in Edmonton. Many expressed fear that Bill 6 would disrupt the daily routines of their business and even prevent their children from helping with daily chores.
PASS OR FAIL?
In spite of the angry reaction at the legislature and at government-organized town hall meetings throughout the province, an amended Bill 6 was passed on December 10, 2015. Consequently, starting January 1, 2016, Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) insurance coverage was required for paid workers, and employers had until April 30, 2016, to register with WCB. They also have the option to purchase insurance to cover family members and unpaid workers.
Basic Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards will apply to paid workers while they’re onsite. That means that employers must take reasonable steps to provide a safe and healthy workplace, and workers can refuse unsafe work that presents an imminent danger. As well, OHS can now investigate serious injuries and fatalities. However, the specifics of the standards haven’t been developed yet, resulting in widespread sentiment that the legislation shouldn’t have passed until fully developed.
The new rules only apply to farm and ranch operations that employ paid workers and not to owners, their families or helpful neighbours.
While that may have placated some, it drew fresh criticism from others. “When it comes to worker health and safety, we have always held the view that preventing accidents and helping the injured is vital,” said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork which represents the province’s 400 pork producers.
“Unfortunately, the amendments to Bill 6 that were passed in the legislature on December 10, 2015, suggest that this bill is no longer focused on improving the health and safety of all those on the farm, but rather, just paid workers during working hours.”
As Fitzgerald pointed out, “Ninety-one per cent of farm fatalities in Alberta happen to producers, their family members and volunteers and Bill 6 only recognizes paid, non-family workers. Unfortunately, it appears that some involved in creating Bill 6 missed the fact that the welfare of everyone living and working on our farms has, and will always be, of paramount importance to every producer in our industry.”
YEA OR NEIGH?
For many of those affected by Bill 6, their reaction is mixed depending on whether they’re talking about how the government went about the bill, or the bill’s intent.
“Everybody would agree the rollout was extremely poor, partly because the government had no idea what would transpire,” said Les Oakes, president of the Alberta Equine Federation (AEF). Established in 1978, the AEF is a non-profit organization that supports equestrian sport and recreational activities within Alberta.
“The process created confusion and concern that Bill 6 would dramatically change the landscape of the farming and horse community,” said Oakes.
According to Oakes, it didn’t have to be that way. “I asked other provinces about their experiences with similar legislation, and it was mostly a smooth transition. I think because the government hadn’t thought things through, it was easy for people to jump to conclusions, especially with misinformation on social media fueling their fears.”
As for the bill’s purpose, Oakes said the fears are largely unfounded. “People worried that kids would be unable to work or do chores, and that neighbours could no longer be neighbourly — nothing is further from the truth.”
Given the uncertainty felt by so many, Oakes looked at the potential impact of Bill 6 on some key areas:
He doesn’t think there will be much effect here. “Most 4-H clubs are members of AEF which includes personal liability insurance. Of course, if they’re holding an event at a barn or stable where people are earning a living, there must be WCB coverage through either the club or the barn owner. But participants should not be affected.”
Again, Oakes sees little impact in this area. Members of the Calgary Regional Trail Riders and the Alberta Trail Riders Association already have personal liability insurance through the Alberta Equine Federation, as most riding clubs are members of the AEF. Patrons of the clubs won’t need WCB any more than a customer at a golf course.
Oakes said there could be some impact on riding coaches. “The ones who give riding lessons at various locations may not have coverage. If the riding stable owner wants to add a coach to their WCB coverage, costs will increase, which may affect board costs or the stable’s cut of the coach’s income.” But as Oakes pointed out, “why as a coach would you not have WCB coverage? It’s about mitigating your risk, just as we do in all other aspects of life.”
RODEO ROUGHSTOCK SCHOOLS
“Nothing will change for participants. Those who earn a living hosting the events would require WCB coverage.”
Oakes doesn’t foresee a change for family operations where friends help with branding. Paid workers require WCB coverage.
FENCING (FOR PAY)
“If I’m a fencing contractor, you should ensure I have WCB coverage before letting me on your land. If I don’t have it, you might question whether I’m really in the fencing business. Again, it’s about managing and mitigating risk.”
DAY RIDING OR DAY LABOURER ON A FARM OR RANCH
While day labourers should be covered under WCB, someone hiring out a horse for a day ride “should buy an AEF membership so they’re covered if the horse they lend you runs over you.”
With WCB for paid workers now mandatory under the bill, some have voiced concerns about cost. From his perspective, Oakes feels the costs are relatively minor, and well worth it.
“In the past, if a farrier or fencing contractor came on your property and was injured, you would probably be sued. Now, they will need WCB coverage before they can work for you, so instead of suing you, they will go through WCB. That’s good news for all of us who own property,” Oakes said.
Cost-wise, Oakes used the example of a farrier doing $50,000 a year in business, whose maximum WCB premium would be $1,500 annually. “Nobody wants to spend more, but if you’re a true business professional, $1,500 shouldn’t cripple you.”
It’s not just a matter of protecting your assets — it’s about protecting people. That’s the view of Michael King, a broker with Capri Insurance Services. Based in Ontario, they provide risk management and insurance solutions to clients countrywide, specializing in the equine industry.
“As a lifelong horseman and an insurance professional for 25 years, I’m convinced that Bill 6 is the best thing for the horse industry,” said King.
He has found that farm workers often have minimal protection on the job when dealing with large equipment or unpredictable animals. For King, Bill 6 fills a fundamental need. “It’s not about government imposing this. It’s not a socialist thing or an ideology thing or even an NDP thing. It’s about looking after the people who work for you.”
HOW OTHER PROVINCES DEAL WITH THE ISSUE
Manitoba and Ontario both require coverage for farm workers (excluding farmers and family members), and it’s optional in Saskatchewan. From a safety standpoint, Saskatchewan and Ontario are governed by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, while all Manitoba workers and employees must abide by the Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Act.
One common critique of the bill was the perceived lack of consultation by government with the agriculture industry before the bill was passed. Now that it has been, the government promises to collaborate with farmers and ranchers, including family farmers, to develop detailed regulations and technical codes reflecting the unique aspects of the industry.
Facilitating that process is a major focus of the recently formed Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition (AgCoalition). With membership representing over 97 per cent of the $12 billion in farm cash receipts generated annually, the coalition aims to provide an efficient means for working with the government to develop effective regulatory consultations.
“The crop and livestock sectors have come together in a historic collaboration, united by a common goal — to represent the agriculture industry with a unified approach and ensure the voices of agriculture are heard regarding Bill 6,” said Page Stuart, co-chair of the coalition.
Reaction by government to this new coalition appears positive. “No one cares more about farm and ranch safety than farmers and ranchers,” said Oneil Carlier, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. “I am pleased they have come together to work with us to ensure the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act serves their needs and the needs of their waged employees.”
The government has proposed a six-table consultation process for gaining input on the Bill 6 regulatory framework. “While we don’t have specific numbers yet, we are assured that the AgCoalition members are well represented on the tables,” said Stuart. “We look forward to reviewing that representation as this work moves forward, and providing feedback as required to support appropriate representation for a meaningful consultation process.”
Stuart emphasized that members understand the stakes here and are in it for the long haul. “We are committed to this discussion.
As producers, we are used to starting from the ground up, and that is the approach we are taking with government. Let’s get this right.” As they wait to see how the application of Bill 6 will play out, proponents applaud the increased protection for employers and their workers, while critics bemoan the confusing process that sparked an explosive response.
Whether the final outcome is laudable or flammable, it’s bound to be historic.