Alberta farm workers deserve protection of OHS legislation: AFL

Labour group warns province that excluding farm workers from health and safety laws is a legal minefield

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) is urging the provincial government to include farm workers in health, safety and employment standards legislation.

AFL president Gil McGowan said reports the province is likely to ignore an Alberta judge’s recommendations to cover farm workers is a step down a “dangerous path.”

"By excluding farm workers from work-related rights and protections, the government of Alberta is going against the recommendations of one of its own judges and, clearly, acting unconstitutionally," said McGowan. "This is a dangerous path to opening themselves up to unnecessary litigation and more judicial inquiries when serious injuries or deaths inevitably occur."

A judicial inquiry in 2008 saw Alberta judge Peter Barley recommend the inclusion of farm workers in laws ensuring workplace protections.

Alberta remains the only province where farm workers are excluded from occupational health and safety laws, as well as legislation governing hours of work and overtime, statutory holidays, vacation pay, the right to refuse unsafe work, being informed of work-related dangers and compensation if they are injured on the job, the AFL said in a press release.

A 2006 Ontario court decision forced that province to change its laws, leaving Alberta the only place in Canada where farm workers are denied basic workplace protections. The Ontario decision was based on a Charter challenge which argued that singling out farm workers was discriminatory and unconstitutional, the AFL said.

The real dangers in excluding farm workers from workplace legislation lie in the government continuing to allow unsafe and potentially exploitative working environments to continue, according to the AFL.

"In the nine years the Alberta government has said it is 'consulting' on how to improve safety for agricultural workers, 160 people have died on farm worksites," said McGowan, adding that thousands of farm-related injuries are reported every year.

The AFL is dismissive of the idea that work-related protections will punish family farms.

“That argument is not based on fact,” the AFL said, because large agribusiness dominates the industry. Farms with income of more than $250,000 accounted for three-quarters of farm cash receipts in 2007. At the same time, almost all "family farms" see owners having to work off-farm in order to make a living.

General farm workers earned an average of $13.13 per hour with a 46.6-hour work week in 2007, significantly below the average Alberta wage rate of $23.90 per hour, the AFL said.

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