Perhaps the most egregiously wrongful employment policy of Alberta’s former Progressive Conservative government was its steadfast refusal to grant Alberta’s paid farm workers basic employment rights.
Farming is one of Canada’s three most dangerous occupations, but the people paid to work on the province's farms have almost none of the rights enjoyed by other workers in Alberta. Under current rules, farm workers in Alberta have no right to know, for example, if the chemicals they are handling are carcinogenic, and no right to refuse unsafe work. Injured farm workers generally have no access to workers’ compensation, and there are also no child labour laws. Farm workers are also barred from choosing to work together for better workplaces by deciding to form a union.
Excluding farm workers from basic employment rights is not only unconstitutional, it also condones a Wild West mentality about farm safety. Between 1990 and 2009, there were 355 farm fatalities and about 8,875 farm injuries serious enough to require hospitalization.
Along comes Alberta’s New Democratic Party government and its now-controversial Bill 6. If passed, Bill 6 would give paid farm workers the same employment rights as every other worker in Alberta – rights already enjoyed by farm workers in other provinces in Canada. While some of the details have yet to be finalized through amendments and regulations, farmers and right-wing politicians have been demanding the government withdraw the bill because, they claim:
- There was no consultation about Bill 6.
- Alberta farms are no more dangerous than farms elsewhere.
- Safety education is more effective than regulation.
- Bill 6 is just a political favour for Alberta’s unions.
- Safety regulations will destroy small farms.
As it turns out, none of these criticisms are true. Let's look at each one in turn.
There was no consultation about Bill 6
The NDP won the 2015 election with a sizeable majority, and the role of government is to enact laws that protect the public interest – including giving all workers the same rights and enacting laws that can save the lives of the most vulnerable workers. Bill 6 does that.
There is, of course, value in consulting both farm owners and farm workers about how such public policy will be implemented – which the government is doing in the form of well-attended town halls and through an online questionnaire. There has also been a process of consultation with larger producer groups. And the government has also promised additional consultation about implementation and specific regulations in 2016.
Alberta farms are no more dangerous than farms elsewhere
This also looks to be untrue. I don’t generally like trying to make interprovincial comparisons because they are tricky; comparable data is hard to find and agricultural industries differ between provinces. But, if the argument is that (unregulated) Alberta farms are just as safe for farm workers as are farms in regulated jurisdictions, let’s compare BC and Alberta to see if this claim stands up to scrutiny.
In 2011 (the year of the most recent agricultural census, and a fairly representative year for both provinces), there were 45,505 paid farm workers in BC and 37,852 in Alberta.
That year, there were three farm worker fatalities in BC (plus one fatality to a farm operator). The Alberta fatality data for 2011 is murkier (because there is no WCB data available), but here is my best effort at getting comparable data about Alberta farm worker fatalities:
- There were 16 farm fatalities that year (slightly below the 1997–2014 Alberta average of 18)
- 87% of farm fatalities are work-related, meaning 13 work-related fatalities (if we round down)
- Based on the percentage of workers and operators on Alberta farms, we can exclude another eight farm operator fatalities, leaving five farm worker fatalities
When you do the math, BC’s three farm worker fatalities (across 45,505 workers) compared to Alberta’s estimated five farm worker fatalities (across 37,852 workers) tells us that in 2011 Alberta farm workers had twice the risk of dying as BC farm workers. This also likely means Alberta farm workers have twice the risk of injury as BC farm workers (but, again, a lack of WCB data makes it impossible to say definitively).
Safety education is more effective than regulation
Nope. Education alone does not prevent injuries, as evidenced by an assessment of Saskatchewan’s long-running Agricultural Health and Safety Network program. That’s because education programs lack the consequences that are required to motivate people to change their behaviours.
When you look at initiatives that have successfully reduced injuries – such as laws requiring the use of seatbelts, bicycle helmets, and child safety seats – they include consequences for non-compliance. Indeed, research about workplace injuries tells us that injuries decrease when there are workplace inspections accompanied by penalties.
BC’s experience with farm safety is instructive. In 1993, BC farms became subject to health and safety laws. At the same time, BC created a Farm and Ranch Safety and Health Association to work with employers to reduce injuries and fatalities. Twenty years later, the results were impressive:
- Farm fatality rates declined by 68.2%
- Serious farm injuries rates declined by 41.4%
- Overall farm injuries rates declined by 52.6%
If Alberta had put in place such a system in 1990, and experienced similar success to BC, there would have been only 113 farm fatalities between 1990 and 2009, instead of 355. And there would have only been 5,200 injuries requiring hospitalization, instead of 8,875.
What this suggests is that both regulation and education are necessary to make Alberta's farms safer.
Bill 6 is just a political favour for Alberta’s unions
Not really. Bill 6 does give farm workers the right to join a union. And Alberta unions certainly have advocated for giving farm workers basic employment rights. But unions have mostly focused on getting farm workers health and safety, child labour, and workers’ compensation protections. The reason unions haven’t focused on getting farm workers collective bargaining rights is because – even with the right to unionize – few farm workers are likely to join a union.
In 2011, there were 37,852 paid farm workers who could possibly join a union. Realistically, though, we can likely discount all 22,254 paid part-year workers. Transitory, seasonal employees don’t generally have enough invested in a workplace to risk being illegally fired by their employer if they try to unionize. And for unions, transitory employees aren’t really economical to organize.
Of the 15,598 full-year employees, many will precluded from unionization because they will be the only employee on the farm, and to be certified by the Labour Relations Board bargaining units must have at least two people. Other employees will have managerial duties, so will be excluded. At a guess, we’re likely looking at about 7,000 or 8,000 potential union members.
Many of those likely won’t want to join a union – nationally, only about half of workers want to be in a union. Many won’t be able to convince their co-workers to go along – in Alberta, private-sector unionization is only around 10%. And the rate of unionization is even lower in small enterprises; they are hard workplaces to organize and few unions try.
If I had to lay down money, I’d guess that if Bill 6 is ultimately passed, in five years we’ll see fewer than 500 of Alberta's 37,000 farm workers with union representation. Most of those will be in large operations such as feedlots and other industrialized animal operations.
In the end, union support for farm worker rights has been more about morality than potential union membership.
Safety regulations will destroy small farms
Probably not. Other provinces (including BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) have granted farm workers a variety of employment rights. In each of these provinces, tens of thousands of farmers are still able to make a go of it. Certainly, there are fewer farms in every jurisdiction today than in the past, but this trend pre-dates farm safety legislation (it goes back to the 1940s).
Further, most small farms don’t employ paid farm workers, so they won’t be affected by Bill 6. Table 1 shows farm employment by annual gross receipts for 2011. It shows that smaller farms have relatively few paid workers and tend to employ them only seasonally.
The farms that will be affected by Bill 6 are those farm operations with gross annual receipts of over $500,000. These 4,454 farms comprise just 10.3% of all farms but account for 67.2% of all paid weeks of work.
While very few small farms will be subject to Bill 6, if a farm can’t afford to provide its workers with a safe workplace, one has to question if it should really be in business. Letting an unsafe farm operate is a form of cost transfer. Specifically, the farmer gets out of paying for a safe workplace, and the cost of operating unsafely (i.e., workplace injuries and deaths) is borne by the workers. This is a fundamentally immoral arrangement.
So, what are these protests really about?
The backlash against Bill 6 is related to the growing economic vulnerability and declining political strength of small farmers.
Historically, the family farm was a 160-acre homestead worked by a farming couple and their kids. Yet, in 2011, only about 17% of Alberta’s 43,234 farms were a quarter section or smaller. As shown in Table 2, the basic trend in Alberta (and Canada) is towards fewer, bigger farms. The real growth has been in giant farms – farms that are at least 18 times bigger than the traditional family farm.
A similar trend is evident in farm finances. Controlling for inflation, the number of farms with annual gross receipts over $500,000 increased by about 780% between 1981 and 2011. The real growth has been in farms with annual gross receipts over $2 million, where growth over the same period was 1187%.
As noted above, the 4,454 farms with gross annual receipts over $500,000 comprised just 10.3% of all farms, but they account for 70.6% of all gross farm receipts – that is to say, big farm operations now produce most of the food grown in Alberta. What these trends in farm size and gross receipts tell us that the much-more-numerous small farmers have become relatively small players in the overall agricultural industry.
Small farmers – facing profound economic pressure – are understandably alarmed at the decline of the traditional family farm. There isn’t much they can do about the economic pressure they face in the globalized world dominated by large agribusiness. But Bill 6 gives them a cause (“oppressive regulation”) to rally around and a target (the government) for their anger.
That most small farmers won’t be affected by Bill 6 seems to be lost amid this outrage. The backlash against Bill 6 isn’t a rational response to a new law; it is an emotional reaction to the slow decline of a way of life.
And right-wing politicians are cravenly stoking this emotional backlash. In Alberta, the right wing has historically traded favourable rural policies (e.g., farm subsidies, infrastructure) for votes. Denying farm workers basic rights was a part of this quid pro quo: basically the former Conservative government traded farm workers’ lives for rural votes.
This long-standing arrangement is now over. Migration means that electoral power has shifted to urban voters, and rural riding have become a political rump. The real electoral battleground in the next provincial election will be Calgary, where the New Democrats’ hold on seats is somewhat tenuous. Stoking outrage about the alleged victimization of family farms by the current government (however contrived and counterfactual it is) gives the Wildrose and the Tories a powerful rhetorical weapon with which to undermine support in Calgary for the New Democrats.
And what about small farmers? Well, they should have our very real sympathies. Farming is hard work. And making a go of a small farm is really tough, and only getting more difficult. But our sympathy for their economic problems should not blind us to the fact that farm workers deserve basic workplace rights.
Farm workers do a hard, dangerous job. The least we can do is treat them like every other worker in Alberta. That’s what Bill 6 does, and the government should be applauded for doing the right thing.