Edmonton

UCP bill would remove need for workplace safety insurance on small farms

Bill 26, the Farm Freedom and Safety Act, introduced Wednesday in the Alberta legislature by agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen, repeals and replaces the previous NDP government's farm safety legislation.

Bill 26 also proposes to prohibit farm workers from forming unions

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen introduced Bill 26, the Farm Freedom and Safety Act, in the Alberta legislature Wednesday. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Small farms and ranches with five or fewer employees would no longer be required to have workplace insurance under a new farm safety bill introduced by Alberta's United Conservative government. 

Bill 26, the Farm Freedom and Safety Act, introduced Wednesday in the Alberta legislature by agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen, also prohibits workers from forming unions. 

Occupational health and safety standards will continue to apply, but all farms and ranches will be exempt from the industry-specific safety standards put in place by the previous NDP government. 

"When it comes to occupational health and safety, a lot of what was introduced with Bill 6, it wasn't practical," Dreeshen said. "It ultimately did not work."

He said the act will still be there "but it will be in a common-sense way." 

Bill 26 repeals and replaces legislation passed by the NDP which aimed to update farm safety rules to bring them in line with other Canadian provinces. 

The NDP law, which is still known as Bill 6, prompted widespread protests when it was first introduced in the fall of 2015. The UCP made an election promise to replace the legislation with something more in line with the wishes of the industry.

Small farms and ranches, which employ five or fewer people, will be exempt from employment standards rules and the requirement to have workplace insurance. 

Larger operations will still have to follow employment standards rules for non-family, waged employees. They will have to have workplace insurance, but can opt for a private plan if they choose not to be part of Workers Compensation. 

The previous NDP government required all operations to have WCB coverage regardless of size.

The changes mean workers without insurance will have to buy it for themselves or sue their employers if they are injured. 

NDP labour critic Christina Gray said this change creates cost and delay for workers and could also hurt their employers who could lose their operations as the result of a lawsuit. 

Gray is concerned about the exemptions allowed for smaller farms and ranches. She believes it will lead to fewer people having basic safety protections on the job.

She also highlighted the issue of workplace insurance, which would become optional for small farms and ranches under Bill 26.

Gray said the former government's decision to mandate WCB coverage allowed the government to better track workplace injuries, which in turn, prompted changes to improve workers safety. Private insurance plans don't offer the same coverage as WCB, she said. 

"This is going to lead to workers who are injured, workers potentially killed, with no compensation for them and their families," Gray said.

Under Bill 26, greenhouses, nurseries, mushroom and sod farms are classified under employment standards as farm and ranch operations, meaning they will be exempt from rules for overtime, hours of work and youth employment.

Cannabis operations are not included. 

The bill exempts all farms and ranches from the Labour Relations Code, which includes the right for workers to form unions. That part of the bill came into effect immediately after it passed first reading in the legislature Wednesday afternoon.

If passed, the remainder of Bill 26 will come into effect on Jan. 31, 2020.

The bill may face legal scrutiny as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms upholds the right of free association, including the ability to form and participate in a trade union. 

When asked by a reporter whether his bill is constitutional, Dreeshen called it a "hypothetical question" and said the ability to unionize was not needed as farm workers never tried forming one when it was legal under the NDP.

He said the government is doing what farmers asked them to do during consultations. 

"I firmly stand behind our farmers and the wishes that they would like to see this government do and that is something we will proudly stand behind," Dreeshen said. 

The government estimates that Alberta has 41,000 farms with roughly 9,000 considered large operations.

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