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Alberta farms subject to workplace safety rules under new bill

Alberta farms and ranches will be subject to occupational health and safety regulations for the very first time on January 1 if a new bill is passed into law.

Increased Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act makes WCB coverage mandatory for agriculture sector

Gibbons-area farmer Michael Kalisvaart says the new farm worker rules were a long time in coming. (Rick Bremness/CBC)
Alberta farms and ranches will be subject to occupational health and safety regulations for the very first time on January 1 if a new bill is passed into law.
Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson says her new bill would align Alberta with other provinces in applying workplace legislation to farms and ranches. (CBC)

Bill 6, the Increased Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, also makes Worker Compensation Board coverage mandatory for the agricultural sector.

The bill was introduced Tuesday by Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson.

"If passed, Alberta would join every other jurisdiction in Canada in applying workplace legislation to Alberta's farms and ranches," Sigurdson told the legislature. 

Rules apply to all farm and ranch workers

The rules would apply to all farm and ranch workers, whether they are paid or not. Occupational Health and Safety legislation already applies to all other industries in the Alberta.

"This legislative framework will give that level playing field to all workers in Alberta," said Oneil Carlier, Alberta's minister of agriculture.

Dairy farmer John Bocock says, "Sadly up until now the percentage of farmers that have coverage for their employees has been rather tragically low." (Rick Bremness/CBC)
Last year, 25 people died on farms in Alberta, but the statistics are incomplete because accidents don't need to be reported, and investigations aren't launched.

Right now, less than five per cent of the province's 40,000 farms and ranches carry the coverage.

For full-time employee earning $50,000 a year, it can cost anywhere between $850 and $1,450.

The bill would also no longer exempt farms or ranches from following employment standards which require workers to be paid a minimum wage and overtime, but these changes won't take effect until after the legislation is finalized.

The government plans to develop detailed occupational health and safety rules for farms and ranches by 2017.

Over the next month and a half, the government plans to consult farmers, ranchers and industry groups to get their input.

'Bringing Alberta into the 21st century'

The Wildrose Party says that doesn't give farmers enough time to weigh in on rules that will have a huge impact on how they operate. The party says education is a better way to improve safety on farms and ranches. 

Grant Hunter, the party's Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour critic, said the Wildrose is worried about how the rules will affect family farms. He said B.C. allows exemptions for smaller operations. 

He called for the NDP to send Bill 6 to committee for a full and thorough review, which would allow for more consultation.

"The government is saying a bureaucrat in Edmonton has a better solution than someone who is in the trenches," Hunter said. "An industry-driven solution will be the best solution."

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann said he was pleased with the NDP bill. 

"This is a great day in Alberta. This is bringing Alberta into the 21st Century, " he said. "I welcome the introduction of this desperately-needed legislation and enthusiastically will support this omnibus bill."

Swann, who has over the last 11 years advocated for farm worker protections, dismissed the Wildrose criticism.

He said opposition to the bill means opposing minimum wage for workers, proper safety training,  giving workers the right to refuse work that can put them in danger, and putting an end to child labour.

Swann said WCB also protects businesses from lawsuits. Without the coverage, a farm can be sued by an injured worker, which could potentially bankrupt the business, he said. 

A review of labour standards will take place over the next year so stakeholders will have time to weigh in, Swann said.

Town halls will be held in Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Leduc before Christmas to provide more information about the bill.

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