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Are Bill 6 recommendations about saving lives or saving money?

In 2016, Bill 6 (the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act) gave paid Alberta farm workers basic occupational health and safety rights and made workers’ compensation insurance coverage mandatory, thereby finally bringing Alberta into line with most other provinces.

These rules apply only to farms that employ waged labour by non-family members. Approximately 29% of Alberta farms employ waged labour, with two-thirds of work occurring on farms with gross revenue over $250,000 per year (see the Parkland Institute report A Dirty Business for details). The impact of Bill 6 on small ma-and-pa producers is going to be very small because most do not employ any non-family, waged workers.

Following passage of Bill 6, the government struck five technical working groups to discuss health and safety regulations as well as how to apply the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code on farms. The working groups are slowly reporting back to the government, and this year the government will roll out new employment regulations for Alberta's farms.

Alberta’s Employment Standards Code (ESC) sets out rules around the terms and conditions of employment in Alberta workplaces, including setting a minimum wage, maximum hours of work, and child labour laws. Historically, farms in Alberta were excluded from many employment standards.

The Employment Standards Working Group has made a disturbing set of recommendations to the government around hours of work and child labour. The underlying theme of these recommendations appears to be "let's save farmers money." Implementing these recommendations would mean excluding farm workers from many of the basic employment rights enjoyed by every other worker in Alberta, and would sit uneasily with the purpose of Bill 6, thereby placing the government in a difficult position.

The 12-member working group—most of whom are members of the agricultural industry—recommended excluding farm workers from the provincial rules around hours of work, days of rest, and breaks. The ESC normally limits work days to 12 hours, requires one day of rest in seven, and provides for regular meal and rest breaks.

The key argument for these limits is safety: long hours contribute to fatigue, which, in turn, increases the risk of injury. For example, being awake 17 hours is the same as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 (i.e., being legally impaired in Alberta). Given that agriculture is already one of Canada’s most dangerous industries, failing to regulate fatigue is ill-advised.

The working group has also recommended exempting agricultural operations from overtime provisions. Alberta normally requires overtime pay when employers demand more than 8 hours of work in a day, or 44 hours in a week. The purpose of this standard is to discourage employers from imposing on workers long work weeks (via a wage premium).

Eliminating the rules around overtime—especially in conjunction with eliminating maximum hours of work—will reduce wage costs for agricultural owners, but farm workers (whom Bill 6 is designed to protect) will receive lower wages and be placed at higher risk of fatigue-related injuries.

The working group is also recommending eliminating extra pay for farm workers who work statutory holidays. There is no real argument for this recommendation, except minimizing employer wage costs.

Most troubling are the working group's recommendations around child labour in agriculture. Alberta’s child labour laws (as currently written) would preclude children (under 12) and adolescents (aged 12–14) from being hired to work on farms. Remember that Bill 6 already exempts family members from all employment rules, so this standard applies only to children hired and paid to work.

The working group proposes allowing adolescents to work on farms subject to two caveats:

  1. Workers aged 12 and 13 can only work 20 hours per week. This is different from the normal rules for adolescents, where work is limited to two hours on a school day and eight hours on a non-school day. The impact of this proposal would be to lengthen the allowable work day and work week during the school year, but shorten it during the summer.
  2. Workers under 16 can only be employed if the work has no negative impact on schooling, parental consent is be obtained, and the work is not detrimental to the health, education, or welfare of youth. These requirements basically already exist in the Employment Standards Code and regulations.

Given the high rate of injury associated with agriculture and the particularly vulnerable nature of adolescents at work, adolescents (aged 12–14) in agriculture is not good public policy. It will only be a matter of time before a teenager is maimed or killed on the job. How soon will depend upon which occupational health and safety rules apply to farms, and whether farms are compliant.

The working group is also seeking to reduce the minimum wage for workers under 16 years of age to 75% of the normal minimum wage. The working group’s rationale is that a lower minimum wage will encourage agricultural employers to provide work experience for young people. This rationale obscures farmers' financial interest in minimizing their labour bill. Further, will young workers really flock to farm jobs if such jobs pay less than jobs in any other industry?

This recommendation could also be seen as the thin edge of the wedge for seeking differential minimum wages for all farm workers and, perhaps, all child workers in the province. However, given that Alberta only recently ended lower wages for workers who serve alcohol, I expect lower wages for child workers is likely a non-starter.

Overall, the working group’s desire to legalize child labour in one of Canada's most dangerous industries is very alarming. If a box factory owner wanted to employ 12-year-olds using crushers and cutters, people would likely lose their minds. But somehow it is acceptable to routinely expose children to well-known mechanical, animal, and chemical hazards on farms? And to make matters worse, the working group also proposes to pay them less than the wages being paid to adults working beside them.

The argument we'll hear most frequently in favour of these exceptions is that farms (or more rhetorically, "family farms") can't afford to comply with "city" regulations (although it may be framed as a matter of practicality). The actual argument being made here is that farms can only stay in business if they are allowed to operate in a manner that is unsafe and unfair to waged workers.

This argument is wrongheaded in three ways:

  1. There is no evidence farms will go bankrupt if required to comply with provincial employment standards. Indeed, farms in Manitoba, for example, manage to survive despite being subjected to similar rules as other employers in the province.
  2. Businesses that can't operate in safe and non-exploitative ways shouldn't be in business. Excluding farm workers from basic workplace standards means, in effect, that the government is saying it is okay to exploit, maim, and kill farm workers.
  3. As noted above, only 29% of farms employ waged labour, and most of this work occurs on farms with annual revenue of $250,000 or more. These farms can afford to provide fair and safe workplaces.

The recommendations of the Employment Standards Working Group pose a significant political problem for the government. Will the government accede to demands from agricultural operators to save money on the backs of workers—something contrary to the basic principles of Bill 6? And will it throw children under the bus and enable farmers to hire them into dangerous workplaces under conditions that are not allowed in any other provincial workplace? Or will the government continue to do the right thing and guarantee all paid farm workers the same rights and working conditions as every other worker in Alberta?

Photo credit: Mark Iocchelli under a Creative Commons licence

Bob Barnetson

Dr. Bob Barnetson is a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. His research focuses on the political economy of workplace injury, farm workers, and child labour in Alberta. He’s the author of The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2010) and co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016).

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