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UCP pledge to repeal Bill 6 would endanger farm workers

Among the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) agriculture-related election platform is the pledge to repeal 2015’s Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (more commonly referred to as Bill 6).

This UCP proposal would roll back the employment rights of workers in one of Canada’s most dangerous industries.

Bill 6 background

In late 2015, Alberta’s NDP government extended basic workplace rights to paid, non-family farm workers. This legislation triggered outrage among Alberta farmers and ranchers, who (incorrectly) predicted that it would cause the demise of family farms.

It took nearly three years to operationalize all of the changes due to extensive consultation with the agricultural community. Bill 6 eventually provided for mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, access to unionization and collective bargaining, and modified employment standards and occupational health and safety rules.

The best-documented change is mandatory workers’ compensation coverage. In 2018, 4,009 employers enrolled their workers in workers’ compensation, up from 1,756 in 2015, when participation was still voluntary. In 2018, 16,767 workers filed 818 injury claims, up from 339 injury claims in 2015.

Prior to the passage of Bill 6, approximately half of farm workers’ occupational injuries would have either been claimed under private insurance or simply not claimed at all.

UCP policy platform

As part of its announced election policy platform, the United Conservative Party (UCP) has promised to "immediately launch comprehensive consultations" about farm worker rights, followed by the repeal of Bill 6 and the enactment of what the party calls the Farm Freedom and Safety Act.

It is unclear if further consultations would yield a significantly different outcome, especially since large producer groups support the current arrangement.

It is also difficult to reconcile the UCP’s claim that the Farm Freedom and Safety Act would be meaningfully driven by consultation when the UCP has already pre-determined at least two features of the act:

  • farmers will be able to purchase private injury insurance for their workers (rather than being required to join the workers’ compensation system), and
  • agricultural operations that have three or fewer paid, non-family employees over a substantial portion of the year will be exempt from the ambit of employment legislation.

UCP rationale

The UCP’s rationale for its agriculture platform is that the industry is in trouble, claiming that "since the NDP came to office, employment in Alberta’s agriculture sector has fallen by 19 per cent. That’s 11,300 jobs that no longer exist."

Albertans should be cautious about accepting the UCP’s assertion that NDP policies have caused massive job losses for three reasons.

First, agricultural employment has been declining for decades. While fewer Labour Force Survey (LFS) respondents reported that their primary job is in agriculture, that does not necessarily indicate that they no longer work in the industry—farming may just no longer be their primary occupation.

Second, the LFS surveys 1,500 Albertans and extrapolates from their experiences to the population of 3.288 million Albertans who are aged 15 years and older. The LFS’s agricultural data is based upon answers from approximately 30 people. If five of those respondents experienced non-representative changes in their employment, this would change the number of reported agricultural workers by 11,000. The change reported by the LFS was not replicated in the 2016 Agricultural Census. The Ag Census (which looks at change over a longer period of time) found less than half of the 19 per cent decline in employment that the UCP claims.

Third, the entire job loss identified by the UCP was recorded in 2016 (with small increases in agricultural employment since then). The only Bill 6 changes in effect in 2016 were mandatory workers’ compensation and a very small number of health and safety rules. These changes are unlikely to have any meaningful effect on farm employment. (Statistics Canada also made methodological changes to the LFS in 2015–16, but it's difficult to tell what effect those changes might have had.)

Overall, the UCP is likely overstating the true change in agricultural employment. Specific to Bill 6, the UCP is also likely confusing correlation (two things happening at the same time) with causation (one thing causing another).

Effect of the UCP policy

Research on workers’ compensation in the US suggests that allowing farmers to purchase private injury insurance (in lieu of workers’ compensation board coverage) will result in injured farm workers receiving worse benefits. Essentially, private insurers minimize payments to workers in order to generate a profit for their investors. Injured workers often have little capacity to resist this treatment because of their vulnerability.

Private insurance companies are also more likely to engage in "creaming" behaviour, in which they choose to insure only those agricultural operators with low claims rates. This behaviour, in turn, incentivizes farm operators to pressure injured farm workers to not report injuries. Claims suppression transfers medical costs away from the farmer and onto taxpayer-funded health-care and income-support systems.

It is difficult to know the full effect of the UCP’s promise that it would excuse farms with three or fewer paid employees from the ambit of "employment laws" while also "ensur[ing] basic safety standards" are met. Based on the 2011 Agricultural Census, it appears that only the largest 10 per cent of agricultural operations routinely employ more than three workers. These operations account for about 30 per cent of all agricultural work.

What this means is that the vast majority of paid, non-family farm workers would likely be denied basic employment rights under the UCP proposal. Put another way, this proposal is a stealth attack on the basic labour rights of most farm workers in Alberta.

The rationale for this exclusion centres on the notion that farms face different operational demands than other businesses, but rules currently in effect already balance the practical realities of farming against the need for meaningful workplace rights in one of Canada's most hazardous industries. This shouldn't be surprising given that the regulations were developed following an 18-month consultation with industry-dominated technical working groups following the outcry over Bill 6.

Analysis

If implemented, the UCP proposals would significantly reduce the workplace protections available to this vulnerable group of workers. The result will likely be a higher level of injury and worse benefits in the event of an injury. In effect, the UCP is trading farm workers’ economic security and health and safety in order to increase the profitability of agricultural producers.

The underlying rationale for these changes—that increasing farm worker rights has somehow contributed to declining agricultural employment—is also suspect. Declining agricultural employment is most likely related to longer-term trends, such as increasing farm size and mechanization.

More likely, this policy plank is an attempt by the UCP to capitalize on the anti-NDP sentiment that lingers in the wake of the introduction of Bill 6 in the early months of the NDP's mandate. It is also notable that many producer groups do not support rolling back farm worker rights, and that a law excluding most farm workers from basic workplace rights would be open to a constitutional challenge, although it is unclear who would fund such a challenge.

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), co-editor of Farm Workers in Western Canada: Injustices and Activism (University of Alberta Press, 2016), co-author of Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces (Athabasca University Press, 2016), and author of Canada’s Labour Market Training System (Athabasca University Press, 2018).

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