Alberta farm worker fights to change labour laws

An agriculture worker who got injured on the job is calling on the provincial government to change workplace laws.
Sixteen people died in farm-related incidents last year in Alberta and many more were injured, just like farm worker Philippa Thomas who still has chronic pain from an injury six years ago. (CBC)

An agriculture worker who got injured on the job is calling on the provincial government to change workplace laws.

Alberta is the only province where farm workers aren't protected by health and safety legislation.

Last year in Alberta, 16 people died in farm-related incidents.

Six years ago, Philippa Thomas nicked her right thumb at the stable she worked at in Cochrane. The deceptively small cut became infected and she was diagnosed with a rare nerve disease.

"It's meant a whole change of lifestyle," Thomas explained. "I'm still at a high, high rate of pain and I go day by day — and, unfortunately, my husband has to too."

Thomas did not have workers' compensation, which isn't mandatory for farm workers in Alberta.

Farms workers are exempt from the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and they have no right to refuse unsafe work or minimum wage.

"They've discriminated against farm workers by not allowing them to be protected," said Thomas. "I mean others are protected [and] do far less dangerous jobs."

477 fatalities since 1985

Since 1985, there have been 477 fatalities — a big concern for Bob Barnetson, associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University's Centre for Work and Community Studies.

"Farm workers in Alberta really have none of the basic workplace rights that every other worker has," he said. 

"What that means is working in one of the most dangerous occupations they in fact have fewer safety rights than someone who works say in an accounting office where there are virtually no risks and little chance of injury."

Barnetson said Alberta's child labour laws also don't apply on farms.

"Farm workers have no right to join a union, and maybe most importantly farm workers don't have the basic safety rights that you or I have and take for granted in our jobs," he said. 

"They have no right to know about the dangers in a workplace and they have no right to refuse unsafe work." 

The ministers of agriculture and human services declined interviews, but they are meeting this week to discuss a report from the Farm Safety Advisory Council — which is largely made up of agriculture industry representatives — who recommended the status quo for farm workers under Alberta's labour laws.