“Kill Bill 6” was a common phrase uttered widely last week as rural farmers took to the Alberta Legislature to protest the proposed enhanced protection of farm and ranch workers.
Discussion among rural farmers worried over how the proposed Bill 6 could affect their livelihood focused on considering the how the new legislation would bring Occupational Health and Safety (OH and S) oversight and Workers’ Compensation coverage to farms with employees. Those changes are scheduled to come into effect Jan. 1 and some have questioned whether these changes will make it tougher for farmers to do the job they need to do.
Beef farmer and Ponoka County Coun. Mark Matejka said the biggest issue he found was there was little discussion among rural farmers, which created fear and confusion. “We would’ve preferred to see more input from the industry.”
He suggests that uncertainty was exacerbated by how quickly the proposal is recommended for approval. Despite that worry, Matejka feels safety on the farm is important and he does not think any farmer is questioning that.
“It could still work. Some aspects of it are still needed,” suggested Matejka.
“We don’t know how the rules are set up. It’s the unknown that is causing people some concern,” he added.
Labour minister responds
Questions that arose through social media and among farmers included how these measures would affect families who have children that help out on the farm and how would 4-H clubs be able to function if workers compensation is required.
Lori Sigurdson, minister of jobs, skills, training and labour, said in an interview the purpose behind Bill 6 is to create a safe work environment for farm workers not to cause issues for 4-H clubs and family farms.
She referred to Kevin Chandler, who died in a farm accident in 2006. As there was no farm safety legislation, Chandler’s wife Lorna took the province to task for not including farm safety rules. In the event of a death on the farm, OH and S has no jurisdiction to investigate or provide tools to prevent the death from occurring again, says Sigurdson.
“The worker has a right to protection,” she stated.
She added that many details of Bill 6 will take time to develop and the implementation of workers compensation and Oh and S will be a gradual process.
“We need to take into consideration the vast diversity of farming,” she added.
The proposal requires adolescents to not work for more than two hours on a school day, more than eight hours on a non-school day and between the times of 9 p.m and 6 a.m.
Although all other Canadian provinces have farm safety legislation, it does not appear that the province investigated how those laws work. Sigurdson said the goal is to make Bill 6 about Alberta and is intended to keep employees on farms safe.
Looking at Bill 6 from a legal perspective
From a legal standpoint, farm safety should be a right for all farm employees, says Eric Adams, University of Alberta law professor.
The protests faced by the provincial government show errors in judgment by policy makers, according to Adams. The proposed legislation was designed by the majority NDP government with little rural representation. Adams says that when the province wants to pass laws that affect rural constituents, they will come under automatic scrutiny.
He suggests the NDP government may be learning a political lesson in including rural farmers when it comes to planning for their future. Despite these challenges, farm safety must be considered. Adams says there are few industries in Alberta that are not legislated by the province.
The tragic death of four children in in rural Alberta highlights the need for farm safety.
“The government wants to protect workers in terms of health and safety,” said Adams.
From that perspective, Adams suggests these are reasonable questions. Other provinces such as Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia also have safety legislation.
“Those farms have not come crashing to a halt because the province regulates safety on them,” suggests Adams.
He said there should be some protection for employees of a farm. What the government did not do was proper consultation with rural farmers, he added.