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Politics leaves tens of thousands of farm workers without workers’ compensation protection

The agricultural industry has among the highest fatality rate of any occupation in the country, and farm workers face higher risk for a range of occupational cancers. Despite that reality, the Alberta government continues to exclude tens of thousands of Alberta farm workers from the provincial workers’ compensation system.

The reason is politics, argues Athabasca University associate professor of labour relations Bob Barnetson in a new Parkland Institute report, A dirty business: The exclusion of Alberta farm workers from injury compensation.

“There is absolutely no justifiable reason for the ongoing exclusion of farm workers in Alberta from workers’ compensation coverage,” says Barnetson. “This report demonstrates that the government’s own attempts to justify the exclusion simply do not stand up.”

Alberta is one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that does not require employers to provide mandatory workers’ compensation coverage to farm workers. What this means, argues Barnetson, is that if a farm worker is injured on the job, they are on their own in terms of wage-loss replacement, medical aid, and vocational rehabilitation. In essence, costs related to injuries and occupational diseases for more than 90% of agricultural workers are shifted from employers onto the farm workers themselves, and ultimately onto to taxpayers, who fund the public health-care system.

Barnetson highlights how difficult it is to reconcile this exclusion with the hazardous, and sometimes cancer-causing, nature of farm work, and contrasts the exclusion of farm workers with the coverage offered to firefighters, an occupation with similar risks.

“Approximately 86% of workers in Alberta are covered by workers’ compensation, and firefighters – who also have a high risk of injury and of developing occupational cancer – have been given exceptional access to workers’ compensation benefits by the government,” Barneston points out. “It is difficult to fathom that farm workers continue to be excluded.”

In examining why the exclusion of farm workers persists, Barnetson says it may be partially explained by electoral politics, pointing out that the Progressive Conservatives have long counted on the support of over-represented rural voters to form majority government. Alberta farmers have long resisted mandatory coverage for their farm workers, and the government has complied as one aspect of a broader quid pro quo for electoral support in rural Alberta.

The report concludes by identifying a number of strategies available to advocates seeking to extend basic workers’ compensation benefits to farm workers.

The Parkland Institute is a non-partisan public policy research institute in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. The full report is available for download on the institute’s website at http://parklandinstitute.ca.

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