Farm Workers:

Injustices and Activism

By Anelyse Weiler

Edited by Shirley A. McDonald and Bob Barnetson
University of Alberta Press
2016/$29.95/256 pp.

When the NDP government first introduced basic legal protections for farm and ranch workers, opponents predicted Alberta would turn into a “socialist Disneyland.” Farm Workers in Western Canada offers some refreshingly sober perspective on Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. When Bill 6 became law on January 1, 2016, farm workers in Alberta finally gained the right to refuse unsafe work. Paid farm workers who are injured or killed on the job must now be covered by the Workers’ Compensation Board. The nine essays in this volume show how dynamics such as global agribusiness concentration have made meat processors and farm workers vulnerable to low-wage, unhealthy and dangerous jobs. This timely book thus underscores why legislated worker rights are crucial.

But why did it take so long for Alberta to align its laws with the rest of Canada? Although the amended legislation doesn’t apply to family members, a common fear was that Bill 6 threatened family farming as a way of life. Yet co-editor Bob Barnetson argues that excluding farm workers from basic workplace standards wasn’t about defending the family homestead; no matter the physical or financial size, most Alberta farms are technically owned by families. According to Barnetson, false narratives about championing the family farm distract from employers’ “moral decisions to trade the health of farm workers for profit.” He contends that the PCs avoided regulating farms—for 44 years—in a “symbiotic” exchange for rural voters’ support.

Interspersed throughout the book are first-hand accounts from the pesticide applicators and carcass disassembly lines. Candid stories from Alberta farm worker Darlene Dunlop’s 15 years of activism are particularly memorable. Interviews with owner-operators who seek off-farm employment illustrate how people’s lives are yoked to ups and downs in Alberta’s oil and gas industry, with hefty consequences for farm viability and gender relations in the communities periodically left behind. Several chapters on migrant workers in BC, Manitoba and Alberta powerfully illuminate the barriers faced by racialized, non-citizen workers in exercising their rights.

Given that detailed farm worker legislation in Alberta is still unfolding, it’s fitting this volume has no conclusion. It does offer hints on what the future might hold. If a new provincial government overturns Bill 6, one chapter suggests it may be necessary to push for farm workers’ rights through the messy process of constitutional litigation. While the struggle for justice in Canadian fields and factories is unfinished, this book reminds us of workers’ perseverance despite grinding indignity.

—Anelyse Weiler is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the U of T.

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