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Right balance needed for Bill 6

Posted on December 2, 2015 by Taber Times

Perhaps Alberta Premier Rachel Notley may want to take a page out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s playbook when it comes to dealing with controversial topics — at least what it looks like on the surface, is to listen to the people who elected you.

Trudeau’s plan to land 25,000 Syrian refugees by Jan. 1 was initially met with some backlash, saying the timeline was too tight to properly screen potential refugees because of national security concerns with terrorist groups linked to the area.

Trudeau looks like he has listened, as he extended the deadline for over half of those refugees another eight weeks.

If initial feedback shows anything in this province about the proposed Bill 6 which will see the new farm safety bill include farms in Occupational Health and Safety precautions, it is perhaps Notley who needs to rehash the bill to some degree. Protests were held at the Alberta Legislature both on Friday and Monday with rallies elsewhere in the province on Monday that saw traffic being stopped on major highways including near Fort Macleod. The object of that wrath has been the perception that the bill would be the death knell of small family farms with the extra costs and hoops the bill would force the family farm to jump through.

The government is proposing to add occupational health and safety regulations to the province’s farms and ranches, which would give officials the authority to investigate farm deaths and accidents.

The bill would also make Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board coverage mandatory for farm workers as of Jan. 1 and would subject the agricultural sector to labour standards, such as vacation pay and minimum wage.

Alberta has approximately 43,000 farms and ranches under Occupational Health and Safety standards.

The fact Alberta is the only province in the country not to have this type of legislation concentrated on protecting some rights of farm workers shows that if done right, it will not have the agriculture industry come to a screeching halt. Agriculture ranks as Canada’s third most hazardous industry and in terms of absolute number of fatalities, there is no more dangerous occupation. The assumption that the agriculture industry in Alberta needs no oversight for its workers is a dangerous assumption to make in a dangerous situation.

That being said, the microscope is certainly on the Notley government given a Facebook page dedicated to an anti-Bill 6 movement was able to gain 34,000 members by the weekend, and it shows these concerns should not be swept under the rug.

The problem, at least on the surface, is that it appears Bill 6 is a one-size-fits-all type of legislation, something that is partially to blame for another initiative the NDP Notley government is undertaking in implementing a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The mom-and-pop minimum wage employer is being lumped into the multi-billion dollar corporation that employs minimum wage people. One can easily implement the wage increase given their profit margins through mass consumption while the other cannot.

It would be hard to believe many of the Bill 6 protesters are from large-scale corporate farms screaming about the injustices of allowing its workforce to refuse dangerous work or provide workplace compensation for injuries or deaths. If so, sympathy is understandably lessened.

The landscape of the family farm is indeed very different than that of corporate farms and should be treated so with how Bill 6 is eventually fully drafted. Bill 6’s heart is in the right place, but it is all in the execution. Demanding health and safety rights for workers in such an industry that has its potential for danger is a no-brainer. We have that in other industries, why should large-scale agriculture be exempt?

But what the Notley government has to realize is also the uniqueness that is farm life.
Getting the crop to your dinner table to feed the country is not a 9-to-5 scenario with scheduled coffee breaks. Harvest is a race against the clock to get the crop in at peak conditions while Mother Nature is co-operating. Crops and livestock do not adhere to your typical office workplace environment.

Also, if there are other insurance options for farmers to pursue that achieve the same goal, that needs to be explored as well.

There are nine consultation meetings organized by the Notley government which is allowing for farmer feedback. Hopefully those consultations with experts in the field, along with the protests show that Bill 6 is one that should not be taken lightly by non-industry insiders.

Nevertheless, given the long history agriculture has had in the province and there has been no legislation governing its practices, some sort of protections for its non-family farm workforce are long overdue.

Agriculture just like any other industry does have cases where employers exploit employees and Bill 6 – Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act is looking to lessen that exploitation.

The delicate balancing act is to address those concerns while not penalizing unfairly those farms and ranches that need no such legislation.

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