Alberta needs to follow the rest of Canada and introduce health and safety laws for farm workers, says one of the province’s MLAs.
It was Lorna Chandler’s six-year wait for compensation after the death of her farm worker husband that prompted Liberal MLA David Swann to renew his call for Alberta to “bring agriculture regulations into the 21st century.”
Alberta remains the only province in Canada where farm workers are excluded from occupational health and safety laws.
After her husband Kevan was killed in a grain elevator accident in 2006, Chandler launched a lawsuit against the feedlot he worked for because worker’s compensation is not required for agricultural operations in Alberta.
As a result of the lawsuit, the company, Tongue Creek Feeders, was forced to file for bankruptcy, displacing some 40 employees.
Swann, who has been urging the government to introduce safety laws on commercial farms for years, says having to engage in a lengthy court battle to “get justice” is unacceptable.
“Some of us believe that with proper laws and enforcement in place we would still have Kevan, an intact family, [and] a productive workplace,” he says.
Alberta remains the only province in Canada where farm workers are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, as well as legislation governing hours of work and overtime, statutory holidays, vacation pay, the right to refuse unsafe work, being informed of work-related dangers, and compensation if they are injured on the job.
Swann says the issue is putting the province’s agricultural industry at risk because many companies have policies that exclude doing business with those that do not have occupational health and safety laws, workers compensation, and child labour standards.
“These big international corporations are in a dilemma. Do they violate their own ethical procurement, or do they stop buying from some of the Alberta producers?” he says.
“None of us, as consumers, want to be unethical about our food, and we are basically having cheaper food because people are being exploited on the farms.”
Deaths and Injuries
An average of 18 deaths occur in the province each year due to agricultural accidents. The Alberta Centre for Injury estimates that for every death there are 25 serious agriculture-related injuries that require hospital attention.
Agricultural workplace injury costs Alberta Health Services and individual workers an estimated $4.5 million per year, according to Bob Barnetson, an associate professor at Athabasca University.
Premier Alison Redford promised to introduce health and safety laws for farm workers during her election campaign, and maintains she is committed to the issue, but has said it needs more study and research.
Swann says Redford is stalling because she doesn’t want to offend rural voters. Some industry players have expressed concern about introducing laws that could increase their operating costs.
“[Redford’s response] is inadequate, really, given the urgency—scores of people dead each year, and hundreds of farm workers injured without compensation every year, and a multitude of reports of violations of basic safety and health conditions on some of these industrial farming operations,” he says.
Swann adds that Alberta has a history of protecting the “free enterprise, free spirit of the Wild West” at all costs, which limits the ability of government to set and enforce safety standards.
As for industry concerns, he believes they could be easily addressed by government subsidies and support in the initial years after the laws are introduced. He notes that legislation would only pertain to commercial farms that use hired help, not small family operations.
“It’s incumbent upon the producers here to step up and say, ‘This is part of the price of doing business, and we want to be ethical employers, we want to protect farm workers and we want to protect ourselves, and this is the price of doing business,’” says Swann.
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