(DANA PREDIGER)

Beyond Bill 6

Can farmers and government find common ground?

By Alexis Kienlen

A thousand angry Albertans gathered on the steps of the Legislature in late 2015. They weren’t the usual protesters—longhaired peace activists or radicals of any kind. They were solid, salt of the earth farmers. Their outrage was over Bill 6, which was going to provide farm workers with the same rights as every other Canadian worker.

Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, extended the reach of a number of statutes in Alberta to include the formerly excluded farming and ranching industry. Previously, agricultural workers were exempt from the Employment Standards Code (e.g., minimum wage and paid vacations), the Labour Relations Code (e.g., the right to organize a union), the Occupational Health and Safety Act (review of injuries, accidents and deaths) and the Workers’ Compensation Act (mandatory WCB coverage). In its initial form, Bill 6 placed the 52,000 workers on Alberta’s 41,000 farms and ranches in an identical position to those in other industries in the province.

The labour minister at the time, Lori Sigurdson, announced Bill 6 at a press conference on a grain farm near Gibbons on November 18, 2015. The bill meant farmers would be expected to follow basic occupational health and safety codes, she said, adding that Alberta was the only province that didn’t already apply such laws. In Alberta a worker is more likely to get injured on a farm than at any other jobsite. Farms are also where an Alberta worker is most likely to die. Over the past 30 years, 368 Albertans died while working on a farm—70 of them children. Prior to the bill’s passage, farm and ranch workers had few protections. If they were injured on the job, they were entitled to no compensation from the government or their employer. Provincial investigators were unable to go onto farms to investigate serious injuries, death or unsafe work practices.

On the face of it, Bill 6 seemed sensible and just. The response, however, was fast and furious. In only a few days over 10,000 individuals signed a petition against the bill and 35,000 joined a Facebook group condemning the legislation. Multiple protests were held at the Alberta Legislature that November and December. No one in government seemed to anticipate that the legislation would ignite such a reaction from the province’s farmers.

The way the government presented it made it seem to a lot of people that farmers aren’t safe and don’t practise safe conduct, which is far from the truth.” —Erna Ference, chicken farmer

The backlash during the bill’s rollout was fuelled in part by a huge distrust of the newly elected NDP, which has an urban base. “We were caught off guard,” says Erna Ference, a chicken producer who farms with her husband near Black Diamond. “The way the government presented it made it seem to a lot of people that farmers aren’t safe and don’t practise safe conduct, which is far from the truth.”

Ference, who is also the chair of the Alberta Chicken Producers, says the previous government had been working towards a farm safety program with farmers and were consulting about occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation coverage. “We thought we were consulting, and all of a sudden, we weren’t. It was just announced,” she says. “We wanted to let the system work its way through, the way we were going about it—a little more cost-effective than the way the NDP went.”

Many farmers, unaware that the PC government had been working on improving farmworker pro-tections, felt they hadn’t been consulted and the legislation had been rammed down their throat.

Panicking, the government made mistakes. No senior officials attended the first town hall meeting in Grande Prairie, only government staff, which upset farmers. Afterwards Sigurdson and Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier attended several meetings.

But the major mistake the government made was creating the impression that family farms were the target of Bill 6. Many farmers feared the new legislation would take away their way of life by “destroying” the family farm. They worried their children wouldn’t be allowed to do chores or help out at all. They were concerned that neighbours volunteering would have to be covered by workers’ compensation. Alberta’s WCB website indicated that the bill would indeed require WCB coverage for family members and volunteers on farms and ranches. But the province soon announced that the legislation would apply only to paid employees—not neighbours, family or friends. On December 10, 2015, this was formalized through amendments to Bill 6. “They did listen to us, and that was good,” says Ference. “They exempted family farms.”

Nonetheless many farmers still had problems with mandatory WCB coverage of paid workers, arguing that private insurance was often a better option. Wayne Drysdale, MLA for Grande Prairie-Wapiti and opposition agriculture critic, has said many producers remain unhappy about being forced to take on WCB coverage because they viewed the private insurance they previously held as more comprehensive and cheaper. Some farmers argued that Bill 6 was “labour legislation disguised as farm safety legislation,” and that labour laws don’t fit the realities of farm life. During harvest season, for example, farmers can work 18-hour days. Rules about maximum hours don’t apply.

The Wildrose party, Rebel Media and Jason Kenney, among other critics of the NDP, didn’t do anything to dispel farmers’ fear. Rather, they stoked it with incendiary speeches and appearances at rallies. “Some people at the town halls were issuing death threats,” says Glenn Norman, a representative for the National Farmers Union. Norman lives in Red Deer County and raises cattle and custom hay. His organization supported Bill 6 from the beginning and he attended the town halls in both Red Deer and Olds.

“Rebel Media was a disinform-ation service,” he says. “They really stirred things up. And the Wildrose and the PCs were shadow influencers. At one meeting I was at, somebody wanted their Wildrose MLA to speak. Why would you [give mic time] to someone who has the opportunity to speak in the Legislature when there are actual farmers trying to figure out what is
going on?”

The Bill 6 discussion brought the Alberta farming community together. To voice their concerns as one unit, 29 of the province’s commodity organizations, including large groups such as the Alberta Beef Producers and the Alberta Wheat Commission, formed the AgCoalition. Kent Erickson, former chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, became one of the organization’s co-chairs.

Erickson says the province didn’t realize the initial legislation would be problematic. Part of this had to do with the nature of farmers and ranchers, he says, who tend to be independent and work alone. “I think the government put our industry into a corner. It’s like a badger. If you put its back into a corner, it’s going to fight,” he says.

Farmers tend to treat their workers like family, he says. And many farmers resented the idea that the government was trying to interfere in their business. “It was an ideological difference: a left-wing opinion on workers’ rights versus a right-wing opinion,” he says.

It wasn’t a good fight, because we didn’t have their perspective and they didn’t have ours.” —Kent Erickson, grain farmer, former co-chair of the AGCoalition

Erickson, who operates a grain farm near Irma, says the farming community did need a push to get the ball rolling on improving farm worker safety but felt the government pushed too hard. He was also concerned because the new government didn’t seem to have a lot of agricultural background in its caucus. “Their viewpoint was coming from unions and worker collectivization, from that side,” he says. “They had very little understanding of how farmers work and how diverse we are, and where our perspective was coming from.

“It wasn’t a good fight,” he acknowledges, “because we didn’t have their perspective and they didn’t have ours.”

The AgCoalition’s role was to communicate with the government and ensure a more meaningful discussion. The group continued to speak out about Bill 6, and more recently formed a non-profit society, AgSafe Alberta, whose consultants go out and help farmers create safety plans for their farms at no cost. The group met with Sigurdson and her deputy ministers and had what Erickson calls a good dialogue.

“Maybe we didn’t agree with the government—but at least we were able to have a relationship with this government,” he says.

Carlier admits the province’s communication could have been better, but says he’s still proud of what his government has accomplished so far. “We had the opportunity to introduce legislation that existed in other provinces [and] that gives another measure of safety to farm workers,” he says. “Farmers and ranchers want their places to be safe anyway. This gives them another tool in the toolbox.”

The bill came into effect on January 1, 2016. The provincial government announced it would create technical working groups to consult on the regulations that would comprise the specifics of Bill 6. Members of the farming community and labour experts were asked to apply to sit on one of six panels and the government chose the groups’ memberships.

Barb McKinley, a consultant who runs a business called The Worker’s Advocate, put her name forward following a recommendation from the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Steelworkers’ Union. McKinley, who lives in Edmonton, grew up on a family farm in southern Alberta and still has relatives in the cattle business. She sat on Technical Working Group 3, which met from March 2016 until January 2017 with a mandate to review existing health-related requirements in the Occupational Health and Safety Code as they apply to farms and ranches. The process involved a number of meetings with stakeholders from different groups. McKinley, who helps injured workers negotiate with the Workers’ Compensation Board, said there was still a lot of misinformation and mistrust on her panel when the process started.

“A lot of people thought that occupational health and safety inspectors were going to turn up on their farms unannounced and demand to see their hazard assessments and inspect everything,” she says. “They didn’t realize that that’s not at all how occupational health and safety operates.”

According to McKinley, the department emphasizes education and compliance rather than a punitive approach. A lot of work had to be done to make the farming community understand the process.

She thinks the process and changes were long overdue. “Farming and ranching are some of the most dangerous occupations, and family farms can be quite dangerous in terms of children and people working alone,” she says. “It’s long overdue to include the agricultural sector on the same playing field as the rest of Alberta’s industries.”

Once I understood things a little better, I changed my mind. That was one of the things about the technical working groups. I learned a lot.” —Barb Mckinley, The Worker’s Advocate

The process of consultation was useful, she says. Since many of the farmers in her group were industry representatives, they went back to their commissions and stakeholders and explained what the new legislation would look like. This helped calm people down. McKinley and her group found that many of the existing safety codes applied quite naturally to agriculture. Many of the big producers, for example, including hog producers and cattle producers, were already doing many of the things the safety code mandated. “I don’t think it’s a huge imposition on the sector,” she says.

Her group dealt with rules about how farmers can store fuel, enter confined spaces and deal with grain bins. As a labour representative, she feels like she learned a lot from the farmers and suggests they learned a lot from her too. “Once I understood things a little better, I changed my mind about my position,” McKinley says. “That was one of the things about the technical working groups. I learned a lot.”

Eric Musekamp, who operates a group called the “Farmworker’s Union,” was also involved in the process. He sat on the Health and Safety Education technical working group.

Musekamp, who lives near Medicine Hat, was a farmworker for 25 years and had been ostracized for his views. He and his wife, Darlene Dunlop, formed their non-profit society with the mandate to lobby for farmworkers. The group was prohibited from creating an official union, but met and consulted with farmworkers who had been injured.

Musekamp started the Farmworker’s Union in 2004 in order to lobby the government to treat farmworkers equally to others under the Charter. He was motivated, he says, by the death of a fellow worker. On August 20, 1999, Terry Rash had tipped an old truck into a ditch in Taber. Farm owner Charles Beauchamp took a knife and slashed the 52-year-old farmworker to death.

“I was a few farms over from Terry and I didn’t know him,” says Musekamp. “But news of his killing swept through the hired-man community. What really got it going was that when Beauchamp went to trial, he plea bargained and ultimately got a recommendation from the sentencing judge for him to be considered for early release, because of the embarrassment of being caught killing your hired man. You couldn’t kill a dog and get that kind of sentence.”

Musekamp felt shock and horror about the incident—and that’s when he discovered farmworkers in Alberta were exempt from all normal workplace standards that the rest of Canada enjoys.

On his Facebook page, Musekamp continues to get abuse and vitriol, including death threats. The trailer he lives in has been vandalized. Yet Musekamp hasn’t backed down from his position. He’s a supporter of Bill 6. He and his wife have been calling for workers’ rights for years.

Musekamp believes Bill 6 is starting to shift the culture in agriculture. “Employers are putting more thought into the way they treat their workers and are treating them more equitably,” he says. Yet even as employers are expected to provide workers’ compensation, Musekamp has still heard of workers who’ve been asked by their employers not to claim it. He also knows of some workers who were not aware that they have coverage.

Since January 1, 2016, compensation claims for injured farmworkers in Alberta have more than doubled. In 2016 there were 793 claims, compared to 339 the year before. This increase was expected, because more people were covered and more people were reporting injuries. The legislation effectively protects both the farmer and the worker, since under workers’ compensation, employees can’t sue their employers. Now, if a worker is injured on a farm, the employer may only need to pay higher rates.

Don Voaklander, director of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta, collects fatality data from farms across the country. He was involved in the Best Practices technical working group, and says that while more workers’ compensation claims were expected, it will be a long time before anyone knows if Bill 6 has brought down the rate of farm injuries. It might, he says, but if so, the difference could be slight, since an estimated 65 per cent of Alberta’s work-related fatalities occur on family farms.

“Farming is still going to be a risky endeavour with Bill 6,” he says. “What it does is give paid employees the equality of other paid employees in Alberta.”

His group recommended rollover protective structures on tractors and other changes related to specific farm machinery. The recommendations eventually adopted are similar to standards used in BC, which, Voaklander says, is the Canadian leader in regulations and best practices for farms. “Most provinces don’t have anything specific to farms. I think Alberta was trying to emulate what BC had done and make it as workable as possible,” he says.

He believes Bill 6 was sorely needed. “I don’t think you can have a second class of worker not protected by Occupational Health and Safety or covered by WCB. Alberta was the last to the table for any of these regulations.”

He adds, “Previously, I wouldn’t have told my kids to work on a farm.”

The changes will be less burdensome than the farming community feared, Voaklander says, because two-thirds of farmers in Alberta don’t have employees. Meanwhile, he adds, a safer operation can be more competitive.

Alberta is about the middle of the road in comparison with other provinces in terms of farm accidents. However, the province does have more child deaths compared to other parts of the country. About three or four children die in Alberta in farm accidents every year.

“It’s been a modest increase for a few years, so that’s a bit of a worry,” says Voaklander. Carlier hopes the discussions of the bill have raised awareness about public safety, even on farms and in work situations not covered by Bill 6.

The recommendations of the technical working groups were available online and open to public comment until February 26, 2018. They will eventually inform subsequent laws. Carlier hasn’t announced a date for new regulations. Albertans such as Erna Ference wonder how many of the recommendations the government will actually consider.

“On any type of regulation, there may be some changes,” she says. “It will be a living document, with continuous input from experts in the field—and that’s farmers and ranchers themselves.”

In the meantime Jason Kenney, the leader of the United Conservative Party, has launched a campaign opposing Bill 6. Kenney, who refused interviews for this story, has an active campaign page called “Deep-Six Bill 6,” which vows to repeal the bill if he becomes premier. That’s a move many think would be a waste of time—including Ference.

“A lot of good work has been done,” she says. “I think the bill could be revisited. But to throw it out, when we’ve come so far in so many ways…? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Jason Kenney’s promise to repeal Bill 6 would be a whole step back,” agrees Barb McKinley. She says labour and farmers and government have built bridges, and Kenney would tear those down. “There’s no reason for that other than cheap politicking.”

“Taking a class of worker and saying ‘You don’t have the same rights and protections that other workers do’—where’s the logic in that? How can you justify that legally, morally or ethically?”

Alexis Kienlen is a reporter for Alberta Farmer. Originally from Saskatoon, she now lives in Edmonton.

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