Alberta farmers, workers weigh in as safety laws are rewritten

On the 1,200-acre cash crop operation run by Bill McFarquhar and his son Cameron, near Cremona, Alta., nature is taking its course. 

While barley, peas, canola and wheat grow in the field, the McFarquhars spend their summer days getting equipment ready for what's expected to be a late harvest. 

They will probably clear their fields before the provincial government introduces its Farm Freedom and Safety Act. The name is indicative of how Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government views the 2016 Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act enacted by its predecessor, the New Democratic Party.

Bill McFarquhar says the biggest problem with the legislation is that labour lawyers and experts had more input than farmers. 

"They tried to put us into a box that was built for construction, mining, forestry or the resource industry," he says. "One size does not fit all."

Before Bill 6 was passed in January 2016, Alberta agriculture and farming operators were exempt from occupational health and safety regulations and mandatory coverage by Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) insurance. Alberta was the only province in Canada that didn't require such worker protections and coverage.

The new standards prompted angry protests, and repealing Bill 6 became a key election promise for the UCP. 

Now, the province's agriculture minister, Devin Dreeshen, is keeping that promise, holding consultation sessions with farmers across the province to find out what they want to remove, tweak or replace in new legislation.

There is also an survey that agriculture workers or operators can fill out online

At a recent session in Olds, a little over an hour north of Calgary, Dreeshen told a group of several dozen farmers: "We want to hear exactly from you how we can improve this bad legislation."  

Colin Hall/CBC

Dreeshen says what they are hearing at these sessions is pretty consistent — "everything from having choice in insurance to actually having OH and S (occupational health and safety) rules that actually apply on a farm."

Some farmers would like to carry private insurance for workers instead of, rather than in addition to, WCB.  

The government has promised "choice," so that seems likely to happen, although it's not clear how it would work. 

CBC News was asked not to record the sessions so those attending the meeting could be comfortable speaking freely. 

ColIn Hall/CBC

Several of those who attended said the battle over Bill 6 has left a lingering impression that their agriculture operations are unsafe workplaces and they don't care about the well-being of the more than 50,000 farm workers who make a living in Alberta agriculture. 

Bill McFarquhar says he's not against labour regulations and notes he began carrying WCB for his family farm more than a decade before it was legally required.

But he says the new legislation needs to acknowledge what is unique about farming. "Working eight hours a day, five days a week doesn't fit the model. Livestock has to be fed and cared for 365 days a year regardless of weather or work schedules." 

Don't send us back into the Dark Ages. — Philippa Thomas

Farm safety advocate Philippa Thomas is worried reworking Bill 6 could end up rewinding hard-won farm workers' protection. "Don't send us back into the Dark Ages." 

Thomas was injured in 2006, long before Alberta required workers compensation coverage for farm workers. So she had no insurance coverage when she got a small cut on her finger while working in a horse stable.

She contracted flesh-eating disease and developed a rare nerve disease in her right arm that has left her in agonizing pain and unable to work. "I have begged for an amputation."

CBC

She has filled her days speaking to and on behalf of injured farm workers. Thomas is trying to stay open-minded about the changes the new government will make. But she is looking for assurances that Alberta won't opt for the minimum, when it comes to safety regulations and insurance coverage.

"My only goal, if I do nothing else in my life and I leave this Earth tomorrow, that I know I have done something worthwhile to protect these workers."

Dreeshen says the new legislation will give farmers the flexibility and choice they need and will protect workers in the event of an injury. But he wouldn't commit to the same level of protections the WCB provides now.

"We are going to go to the end of August with these consultations and when we introduce legislation, it's going to be something that actually works for farmers and farm workers."

The Farm Freedom bill is expected to be introduced this fall.