|Farmers harvesting opinions on ban demand|
|Local Content - Local Agriculture|
|Written by Greg Price|
|Wednesday, 29 August 2012 17:24|
Early last week, Liberal MLA David Swann’s demand that PepsiCo. Frito Lay boycott Alberta-grown potatoes has some growers of the crop here locally scratching their heads wondering what the firestorm is all about, and defending their labour practices.
A statement also echoed by Eric Musekamp, president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta is stemming from wanting to make changes dealing with the use of child labour on farms and the extension of workplace health and safety regulations to farm workers. Dale Setoguchi, who farms approximately 700 acres of the crop, notes he uses only employees that are 16 years of age or older, and very few under 18.
“I don’t know of too many farms out there that use under-18 workers. I’m sure there are some out there, but not many,” said Setoguchi who has no contracts for Frito Lay this growing season.
Setoguchi has around 30 employees during harvest.
“It’s long hours. It’s not like 9-5. You get up at 6 (a.m.) and go until 8 (p.m.),” said Setoguchi, adding he recalls the days when he was a child, you were allowed to take two weeks off from school to help the family farm finish harvest.
It is that uniqueness during some months of the farming industry that makes it impractical for some of your typical labour code demands.
“It’s a seasonal thing where we have to get our crop planted in the spring and get it harvested in the fall. You can’t work on an eight-hour day like shift work. We have 7:30 (a.m.) to 7:30 (p.m.) work days here, so 12-hour days. Our ladies get 15-minute breaks every hour, we rotate them,” said Tim, a southern Alberta potato farmer who has a contract with Frito Lay and whose name has been changed for anonymity to go on record with The Times. “The dirt shovelers, the guys doing the grunt work, they take their breaks as they will. You get your 15-minute, half-hour breaks here and there. It’ quite a content workplace and a good competent crew that knows what they are doing. It’s two weeks in the spring and a month in the fall. The rest of the year we run the normal 7-5 with lunch and coffee breaks.”
Tim noted his farm did carry insurance for his workers and in an incident where a worker lost part of his thumb, the insurance company did not cover it anyway.
“There was some fine print and technicalities in there. What we’ve been doing is paying people when they’re off (due to injury). We haven’t come into any real serious accidents. We try and do our best with safety briefings before tasks are done on what needs to be done on the farm,” said Tim. “We were not happy with our coverage when we did carry it, it’s like the only people making money are the insurance companies. We assumed we were covered and we weren’t.”
Tim said he has not had any really serious incidents happen on his farming operations, but when injuries have happened, he takes care of his employees. One lady hurt her knee jumping off some potatoes, in which she was paid like she was still working as she recovered and was told to take as much time off as was necessary.
“I think Alberta farmers are doing a pretty good job with their workers, even without all the regulations, we’re pretty proactive, especially the potato industry,” said Tim. “We (farming) have come to be more of a people business. To be a successful business you have to have happy and productive workers. If you don’t have content people, you are not going to get the job done or they are going to go somewhere else.”
Repeated reports have noted that sometimes workers from the Low-German Mennonite culture have approached farm owners asking that their sons be hired on along with the father or they will seek work elsewhere, a practice that is frowned upon. It may have worked back in the mid-2000s when Alberta was facing a serious labour shortage for farming and other industries, but not in today’s economy.
“I usually don’t try and hire anyone under 18 which is where I draw the line. Sixteen-year-old kids aren’t men and they don’t work like men and if you’re going to pay someone, it might as well be a man,” said Setoguchi. “I don’t like to use anyone who is under 18.”
Miyanaga Farms has around 2,000 acres of potatoes for three french fry producers and added he uses no employees under 16 years old.
“It’s all age-appropriate work. The 16-year-olds are on the grader, doing a lot of hand labour, they are not running equipment. I train my guys and I can judge by their skill level what they should be doing,” said Mark Miyanaga. “The 16 years olds are on the grading table inspecting the potatoes.”
While the farming industry in Alberta is currently unregulated with health and safety regulations and labour codes, Miyanaga noted it is easy for people to jump on the negative bandwagon using a vehicle like last Monday’s Farmworkers’ Day as the focal point without going onto farm operations to see how they are being run on the front line.
“There are media sources that are running wild with this. They are all trying to spin it that we are all slumlords or something exploiting workers,” said Miyanaga. “We have our safety meetings before harvest and we go through everything telling them what their responsibilities are. You try and run a safe operation.”