Southern Alberta farmers face record crops and good news for virtually every commodity this summer.
But earlier last week, potato farmers were jolted by calls by Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann for Frito Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo., to boycott Alberta-grown potatoes. Swann made the statement to pressure the Alberta government to deal with the issue of child labour on farms and the extension of workplace health and safety regulations to farm workers.
That has so far not swayed PepsiCo. from honouring its contracts with local growers, as the organization that represents southern Alberta potato growers added, the area’s growers are taking steps to address farm-safety issues.
“The Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA) prides itself on being a grower organization that has led the way in Alberta with On Farm Food Safety (CanadaGAP) protocols as well as many other initiatives in an effort to be responsive to our customer's concerns.” said Rob Van Roessel, chairman off the PGA. “The PGA has been involved in discussions with the Alberta government concerning worker safety and support increased worker safety training for our industry. We look forward to leading
the way in this initiative as well.”
Gary Bikman, the Wildrose MLA for Cardston-Taber-Warner, whose riding
is home to the PGA headquarters, said the issue is one many in
Alberta’s urban areas likely have difficultly wrapping their heads
“Mine is a predominantly rural riding, and farms and agri-business
play a key role in the economy, and farmers have a traditional view of
That view often involves young people working on the family farm, and
farm workers who put in long days during pivotal times in the season.
Bikman added an 18-hour day during harvest season may be tough for
union types to understand, but it is a way of life on the farm, and a
necessity to in some cases to maximize optimal conditions, conditions
which can change at the drop of a hat in southern Alberta.
“It’s an old farm saying that you’ve got to make hay as the sun
That said, Bikman added the modern farm can’t exploit its workers,
due to the changes in the modern workplace and the plentiful amount of
employment options available in Alberta.
“They have to treat people well. In the information age, people
certainly don’t have to work where they don’t want to.”
The MLA added calls to have farm workers brought into a union, simply
do not make sense for the industry.
“It’s hard for someone to appreciate the uniqueness of the
situation,” said Bikman. “Bringing farm workers into a union,
factory situation doesn’t equate.”
He went on to ask why the Liberal MLA brought up the issue in the
“I question the motives of someone who is trying to do that. It’s
self-serving and attention grabbing,” said Bikman.
Progressive Conservative Lethbridge-West MLA Greg Weadick questioned
Swann’s call for the boycott, and said he has never witnessed any
request quite like it.
“For a MLA of the Alberta legislature to ask an Alberta company to
boycott an Alberta product is just unbelievable.”
Weadick added he was taken aback by the request, and added such a
boycott would harm southern Alberta’s farm industry, due to the value
of the potato crops grown on local irrigated land.
He also mentioned the government is committed to farm safety, and
wants every worker to come home safe. He did add one caveat to that,
“We have to protect the integrity of the family farm.”
There are some recent statistics, however, that point out there is an
increasing risk on Alberta farms, particularly when it comes to the
safety of children. The Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research
showed the rate of agriculture-related deaths among children went up
by a percentage of 5.8 per cent each year between 1992 and 2009.
It also stated the rate of children killed in farm accidents over that
period increased, despite the fact the overall number of children
living on farms in the past two decades dropped by over 50 per cent.
The statistics, however, do not differentiate between farm types, or
if in fact those killed were children living on the farm or farm
Similar statistics have been cited over the years in attempts to give
more protection to farm workers, while the Alberta government has
consistently maintained education and awareness campaigns are the best
way to deal with safety on the province’s farms.
Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta, said
PepsiCo.’s stated ethical procurement policy is they do not use
unregulated child labour or exploit workers, something Musekamp
charges is indeed going on.
“Their stated policy is in opposition to what is going on, on the
ground in Alberta in agriculture.”