By Trevor Busch
A firestorm of protest by farmers across the province in recent weeks over the Notley NDP’s move to implement labour protections for farm workers has been predicated on a number of false presumptions, says the president of the Farmworker’s Union of Alberta.
“Overall, it’s very unfortunate that everyone’s been whipped into such a frenzy, mostly over misunderstandings and misinformation,” said Eric Musekamp, FUA president. “It seems this is being fomented by the Wildrose Party for a broader agenda, and they’re just using the farm family issue to further their political agenda, which is to try to discredit the NDP. It’s really too bad — they’re sure shooting themselves in the foot these guys.”
Bill 6, or the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, was tabled in the legislature last month, and has since met with heavy opposition from many of the 60,000 farmers and ranchers in Alberta. Alberta is currently the only province in Canada in which paid farm labour is exempted from Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) standards.
“It’s exactly what the government and the various crop commissions said they were going to do, and agreed to do,” said Musekamp. “And it’s exactly what’s necessary to honour the charter, and to position Alberta to work in the international marketplace. To be able to market our products internationally, we absolutely have to do this.”
A key omission from much of the debate surrounding Bill 6, according to Musekamp, is that the voice of the labour sector — actual paid farm workers — that the legislation is specifically designed to protect has been largely absent from the discussion.
“They’re scared shitless if they so much as raise an eyebrow,” said Musekamp. “They’re absolutely and completely disenfranchised. It’s tense out there right now. How would you like to be the hired man when your boss is jumping in the combine to roar up to Calgary or wherever to demand that you have no rights? It’s a preposterous situation.”
Many of the actual issues that might have existed with Bill 6 have now been blown so far out of proportion as to be ridiculous, added Musekamp.
“This is sour grapes, provocateurs fomenting discontent, that’s exactly what’s going on. This is way past the actual issues in the bill. Most of what all the holler is about is wrong, and based on misinformation. All of those concerns are not present, because the rules and regulations have not been written. All of this stuff about momma’s eggs, 4-H, can I take my kids in the combine — every single bit of all of that has yet to be determined. So what are they getting revved up about?”
Musekamp argues renewed demands for consultation on the legislation ignore the fact the government did conduct consultations prior to tabling Bill 6.
“The government has announced that we’re going to exempt family farms — just like you asked us to do — so now they’ve switched to hollering about no consultation. People have put forward evidence that there has been consultation, so now it’s not enough consultation, or the right kind of consultation. These guys expect that the minister should go and speak to every farmer and rancher, every guy with seven cows and 50 chickens? It’s unreasonable.”
Musekamp reported his overseas agricultural contacts and others in neighbouring jurisdictions in North America are baffled by the vitriolic opposition to labour legislation amongst producers in the province.
“I’ve heard from the UK, the EU, Eastern Canada and the U.S., and they’re saying what are you hillbillies doing? You want child labour and no safety? These convoys are getting the word out way more than I ever could as to what’s going on on farms. People are saying ‘Child labour? No standards? I never knew that’. I’ve been working for a decade to try to get people to know that. Now these guys are doing if for me.”
Taking dead aim at the Wildrose Party as responsible for much of the escalating opposition surrounding Bill 6, Musekamp indicated the legislation should hardly have come as a surprise to the province’s official opposition.
“Why foment all of this angst when, you, the Wildrose — Brian Jean (Wildrose Party leader) as well — know this has been an ongoing process, there’s been ongoing discussions with this government, and with the previous government. This a just a follow through of continuous ongoing consultation with the industry. That’s why the government was able to move forward so fast, 99 per cent of the work’s already been done. It’s no surprise to anyone, and no mystery. He knows that WCB is not replaceable with private insurance — even though he keeps saying that — he knows it’s not the same thing, it’s apples and oranges.”
Growing demands for ethically-sourced agricultural products amongst international consumers, according to Musekamp, will eventually leave Alberta’s agricultural industry in the proverbial dust if labour protections are not mandated in future.
“Brian Jean needs to stop using family farms as fodder for his political gain, because he’s really hurting the image of the family farm and Alberta agriculture, with industry specifically. Guys like Pepsico and Unilever and Wal-Mart are all looking at us, and they are being tainted by this. All of these major purchasers in the world want ethically-sourced supply. They don’t want child labour. They don’t want unsafe workplaces. They’re setting hard deadlines. That’s why the government picked 2017 to implement the legislation, because a great big chunk of the world market on that date is going to demand what they call sustainably sourced inputs. One of the pillars of sustainable sourcing is labour standards.”
While shameless political maneuvering on the part of the Wildrose Party may yield some capital at the polls in the short term, Musekamp concluded the protests sweeping the province will do more harm to the position of farmers than good.
“Our farmers are really hurting themselves by hollering and yipping and making it look like they’re against safety and demanding child labour, because that’s what the populace sees. This government is really doing the ag industry a favour, and the Wildrose is giving them a really nasty black eye. That’s the long and the short of it.”