The national cost of Alberta’s Bill 6

Farm outrage at the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act may have already backfired

As 2015 came to a close, Canadians watched Alberta farmers hold massive rallies against legislation intended to improve farm safety. They listened to farmers raging against the costs Bill 6 would impose on their operations, with farmers saying the legislation will destroy family farms.

They heard farmers complain they hadn’t been consulted in the drafting of the legislation, and that Bill 6 was neither wanted nor needed in the province.

However, the biggest cost of Bill 6 may be the loss of farmers’ credibility and reputation.

Most of the arguments by farmers against Bill 6 simply cannot be substantiated, such as the claim that it will destroy family farms. Alberta is the only province where farmers are exempted from Occupation Health and Safety legislation, the cornerstone of Bill 6. Yet family farms continue to exist in every other province where farms fall under OHS regulations.

Farmers feign surprise at the law. Farm safety has been an issue in Alberta for decades. Premiers Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford and Jim Prentice had all vowed to bring in farm safety legislation. The Canadian Press reported that PC leader Ric McIver was close to bringing forward that party’s own health and safety rules for farmers before the PCs lost the election on May 5, 2015.

On June 24, 2015, Samantha Trudel, Alberta Barley’s government relations and policy intern, wrote a blog post on the Alberta Barley website recognizing Alberta was the only province exempting farmers from OHS. She went on to say: “The issue of OHS is still being fully investigated by the provincial commissions, and representatives will be attending a stakeholder meeting in Edmonton in June (2015) to further discuss the options with the government in the hopes of coming to an industry-endorsed solution.”

Trudel concluded: “Whether agriculture is eventually included in The Occupational Health and Safety Act or not, the industry must come together to discuss the issues collectively and proactively.”

Plus, on July 7, 2015, the Alberta minister of agriculture, Oneil Carlier told a Canadian Occupational Health and Safety News meeting: “We feel that it’s time that farm workers no longer have an exemption from health and safety regulations.”

Contrary to the claims that farmers were not consulted, farm organizations were in fact meeting with government on this very topic.

25 deaths in 2015

Agriculture continues to rank among the most dangerous industries, and the educational approach reportedly favoured by most farmers has not worked.

Alberta in particular has had farm safety programs in place for decades. Alberta incorporated The Farm Safety Centre on Aug. 19, 1991, almost 25 years ago. The Farm Safety Centre mission was to significantly influence the safety and overall well-being of rural individuals through effective farm safety education and training initiatives.

The Canadian Agricultural Safety Association and Canadian Federation of Agriculture along with Ag for Life and the Alberta Agriculture Ministry host an annual ag safety week in Alberta.

As well, the ministry and Alberta Jobs, Skills, Training, and Labour developed the FarmSafe Plan. This program utilizes a written manual with a two-day workshop to assist farmers in creating a written health and safety plan for their farms.

Even with such efforts, however, 25 people lost their lives on Alberta farms in 2015.

Of course, many injuries probably occurred too, but that number is unknown because there is no requirement to track injuries on farms in Alberta.

Higher costs

All this isn’t to say that farmers should just accept whatever legislation the government wants to dream up. Farmers do have a verifiable complaint about Bill 6. It will increase labour costs for most farmers with paid employees. It was estimated only about seven per cent of Alberta farms were enrolled with the Worker’s Compensation Board prior to the introduction of Bill 6.

But even the cost issue is clouded by the oft repeated claim that farmers already carry better and cheaper insurance than what is offered through WCB. Unfortunately, farmers are not backing up this claim with details and costs of these insurance products.

Dick Reaney, a chartered financial consultant and Edmonton-based insurance broker, feels most Alberta farmers do not carry disability and illness insurance even for themselves because of the cost of such policies.

Even with the adoption of Bill 6, Reaney questions whether farmers will be willing to pick up the WCB tab for employees or if they will only hire labour on a contract basis. In other words, having a WCB card could become a prerequisite for working on farms, and workers would be hired only if they are already self-enrolled in WCB as contractors.

I had hoped AARD could provide some factual insight on the number of farmers providing health and safety insurance coverage for their employees and what the costs are for such coverage. After all, AARD had commissioned a study in 2014 of farm worker insurance products, the uptake of these products, and how they compared to WCB products along with the financial risk to farms from accidents, disabilities, and death of farm workers.

Although this study was to have been completed by January 30, 2015, I was unable to obtain the results from AARD, or even get confirmation whether the study had been done.

Perhaps one reason why farmers may think their current insurance is better and cheaper than WCB could be because farmers are confusing the liability insurance they carry to protect their farm business from lawsuits arising from an injury someone suffers while on the farm with the protection that life/disability/illness/WCB insurance provides an employee. These are two very different insurance products which provide protection to different parties.

It is critical to understand the focus of Bill 6 is not on the farm business owner, or even the farm family; it is protection for paid employees.

(To understand how Alberta has become the only province to exempt farm workers from OHS, read Bob Barnetson’s Paper “No Right To Be Safe: Justifying the Exclusion of Alberta Farm Workers From Health and Safety Legislations.” Barnetson is an associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University.)

Is farming a business?

Governments, industry, and farmers themselves have worked hard to change the perception of farming from an uneducated, menial job to a sophisticated, professionally run business. Unfortunately, the message the public is getting from farm opposition to Bill 6 is that farming is not a business, it is a lifestyle, and that farming isn’t viable without unpaid family labour and low-cost hired help.

The message to our future workforce is just as negative. It’s that farm employees shouldn’t expect the same safety and employment protections that all other businesses provide.

We have to ask whether these messages help us change the attitudes at Service Canada, where its website says “job prospects are limited” for general farm workers, and “recruitment difficulties experienced by this industry were primarily a result of the low pay and demanding working conditions (seasonal work, long hours, work on weekends, high employer expectations, etc.)… plus competition from other occupations.”

Reputation is everything!

Leon Bracey, a business development leader for Brown Public Relations of Atlanta, Georgia wrote an article entitled “The Importance of Business Reputation” for Business in Focus magazine and says a business’s reputation is its most important asset.

“If you do anything to damage either your own reputation or your company’s, you could destroy your business,” Bracey says. “While a good reputation precedes you, a bad reputation will follow you for a long time.”

The business world is littered with the debris from battered reputations. Consider the costs to BP’s reputation after the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the costs to Toyota to rebuild its reputation after having to recall eight million vehicles in 2009, or the battering of Volkswagen from the emissions foul-up.

Reputation is critical in agriculture and the food industries too. Consider the impact COOL, GMOs, MRLs, hormones and antibiotics, organics, and environmental sustainability have had on consumer preferences and the prices farmers receive. Consider the impact mad cow disease had on the beef industry, or the recalls of food products after salmonella or listeria contaminations.

Reputation also impacts labour. Research by Corporate Responsibility Magazine found that 75 per cent of Americans would not take a job with a company that had a bad reputation, even if they were unemployed.

There is no question Bill 6 has flaws. However, it is one thing to address these shortcomings, and quite another to attack the premise of the bill. If farmers truly feel that farm employees should not have the protections offered by every other business, we will experience a growing labour shortage, and a growing disconnect with the public. That is something agriculture cannot afford.

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Comments

  • Laura MacRae

    The only person who has lost credibility with this collection of half truths, poorly researched assertions and a total failure to bother to try and report both sides of the issue is the author. As a member of an Alberta farm group with over 50,000 members, I would be happy to respond to every assertion the author erroneously makes. Meanwhile, our members will be pleased to respond by withdrawing our subscriptions.

    • Gerald Pilger

      Hello Laura:
      I want to point out what I wrote was my opinion and not that of Country Guide. Second, it was not a support of Bill 6, but my opinion that the optics of the response of Alberta farmers has been detrimental to farmers credibility and reputation. If you have evidence that farmers have not lost any credibility in the eyes of the general public through their actions, rallies, and statements and posters claiming things like this will end family farms and kill 4-H etc that is what you need to post that to refute what I said.

  • MickrocketAB

    AB taxpayers have been paying for farm injuries and any resulting disabilities for decades. You’re absolutely correct that Albertans are suspicious of the false claims and crocodile tears of farmers over Bill 6. Skateboarding & windsurfing is a lifestyle… Earnings derived from heavily subsidized farming is a BUSINESS.

    • Sheila Runzer

      News Flash: USA farmers and EU farmers are HEAVILY subsidized. Western Canadian farmers are not! Do your homework!

      • LinT

        With respect Sheila, what does your answer have to do with MickrocketAB’s statement?

      • annie

        SO…. subsidization of fuel and licensing doesn’t count? Using your children to divide income isn’t subsidization?
        Yes, dairy, poultry, and egg production are the most subsidized farm operations.
        But, according to StatsCan, subsidies and indirect transfers accounted for 14 per cent of gross farm receipts in 2011.
        That is about 14% more than what my company got.

  • Sheila Runzer

    The writer of this article said “There is no question Bill 6 has flaws. However, it is one thing to address these shortcomings, and quite another to attack the premise of the bill.” This statement alone shows the writer is seriously lacking understanding about the Bill 6 controversy. If the writer had done his research, he would know that Alberta farmers are not opposed to safety legislation. We are however, opposed to the shortcomings in Bill 6, the lack of grassroots consultation and the manner in which Bill 6 is being implemented. Consulting with some boards and some grower associations was not a good way to collect information from the many varied farm operations in Alberta. Writing technical rules after the Bill took effect, has created all kinds of questions in the farm community because every operation is unique. Some still don’t know if they need to apply for WCB in their situation. Those that have, are finding that the government forms are not reflective of the amendments made to the Bill in December. There is a lot of confusion, as OHS and WCB staff attempt to apply legislation that has no industry specific rules. Finally, farmers do know the difference between general liability insurance and a policy that provides life, accident, and disability insurance. To say that “perhaps” we don’t ,is pure opinion. I currently have a subscription to your magazine, and I have to wonder if one writer can pass off opinion as fact on an issue I am very familiar with, how can I trust the credibility of anything else you print?

    • Gerald Pilger

      Hello Sheila:
      As you correctly point out, I wrote an opinion piece; my opinion; and not necessarily that of Country Guide. Second, it my opinion of Alberta’s reaction to Bill 6 and not to the Bill itself – which I said has flaws.
      You write that consulting with some boards and some grower associations is not a good way to collect information. Please share with me how you think the government should have collected information. Many commodity groups and farm organizations have now joined together as one voice to consult with government. So you agree with this plan? Will you accept the recommendations this new organization presents?

      • Sheila Runzer

        Unfortunately, when opinion pieces are not clearly identified as being such, many readers will take away only the view of the writer and therefore be unaware of the other side of the story. That’s what my concern was in my initial comment. Having said that, here is my side……..We are beef producers. Recently my area delegate told me there were some informal talks with government about the desirability of safety legislation with some representatives. He was not one of them. His understanding is that there was agreement in principle, and recommendations were made, but government ignored the recommendations. Grassroots producers , like myself were left out of the loop entirely. We are also barley producers. We heard nothing about any of this from that association, prior. The government should have consulted first and then legislated. They should have held town hall meetings across the province first, ahead of writing the bill. Alternatively,several months ahead of time, there could have been media announcements to indicate their intent, and then soliciting farmers’ input. I read the NDP platform as posted on their website and there is no mention of WCB, OHS, labor standards, or unionization legislation. There is also radio footage of an interview with Carlier Oneil , several weeks after the election, where he specifically said this was not something the government would be looking at any time soon. So, simply put, producers were blind-sided. If the new government had consulted at the grassroots level first, they would have gained a picture of the complexity of the agriculture industry. They would not have made the critical mistake of telling us that WCB and consequently OHS would be mandatory for owners, family, volunteers, neighbours, as the “misinformation” on the government website clearly stated before they changed it. They could have approached it with a spirit of partnership, and had input discussions BEFORE the writing and introduction of the bill, not during 2nd and 3rd reading of the bill. What did they do? They had Town Hall meetings after the fact. The initial format was one of “come and be told” by a hired promotional team. Then they changed to “we are listening” ……except they weren’t really listening. There is video footage taken by farmers to show that the MLA”S and government reps that showed up to “listen” at some town hall meetings did not record a single word in any way, shape or form, by their own admission. They were ill equipped to answer questions. Venues were packed with people waiting outside. Finally, the government should have pressed restart and referred the bill to committee,because it was clear there were multiple levels of issues. They could have delayed the date of compliance until after the OHS technical rules were written. My last point will be about the process in place to involve farmers during the technical discussions. First, there was a Government survey that farmers could fill out, but most of the questions were about unionization and labor standards, not safety directly, so I would call it a biased survey. I want to note that only some farm groups have met and are speaking with one voice. As a producer, I do not know what that voice is. We have only been told that is exists. We have not been told what is says. Although there was a survey that this group used to get information from farmers, I do not know what information was compiled. Also, just announced this week, government has defined the opportunity for producers to participate in the round table discussions coming up, but the screening process is very rigorous, leaving out the average “joe” .To answer your last question about supporting recommendations from the grower organizations group, I have to say “no” because right now it is a blank check. I would say it is up to those organizations to start comprehensive communication with the people that pay the check -offs. I would like to see some local and area meetings, because the views of a few organization delegates may not be representative of all facets of this industry that varies in size, management structure, farming techniques, number of employees, revenue, well as commodities produced.

        • Gerald Pilger

          Hello Sheila

          You have expressed your position very well. I hear and understand your frustration. Many farmers agree with some or all of the points you make. I agree with some of them too.
          But my article was not about the validity of the Bill; it was how
          farmers reacted to the Bill and what it did to our reputation.

          While we can blame government, our commodity organizations
          also have to be held somewhat accountable. You wrote your organizations delegate told you “His understanding is that there was agreement in principle…” yet most farmers are still in the dark as to what meetings were held and when and what was agreed upon at these meetings.

          You write: “I want to note that only SOME farm groups have
          met and are speaking with one voice…” Here is a list of the organizations which are now speaking with one voice: From an Alberta Milk News Release on January 25 2915: “The coalition meeting was co-hosted by the Crop Sector Working Group and the Intensive Livestock Sector Working Group and attended by
          the Alberta Barley Commission, Alberta Beef Producers,Alberta Beekeepers Commission, Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association, Alberta Chicken Producers, Alberta Elk Commission, Alberta Farm
          Fresh Producers Association, Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association, Alberta Hatching Egg Producers, Alberta Milk, Alberta Pork, Alberta Pulse Growers, Alberta Seed Growers Association, Alberta Turkey Producers, Alberta Vegetable
          Growers, Alberta Wheat Commission, Alfalfa Seed Commission, Bison Producers of Alberta, Egg Farmers of Alberta, Hutterite Standing Committee, Potato Growers
          of Alberta, Prairie Oat Growers Association, Western Barley Growers Association, Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, and the Western Stock Growers’ Association

          This new organization claims to represent 95% if the
          agricultural industry in Alberta. If your organization is on this list you should be asking them what their position. If your group is not on here, ask why not.

          In my opinion, Alberta farmers have not had a united voice.
          I have counted over 500 organizations in Alberta claiming to speak for Alberta farmers. Government does not know who to listen to and can play one group against another. If any possible good could come out of this maybe we can build a single, Alberta farm voice. The worst is if we continue to act as a mob, fighting against legislation that every other industry is already subject too including farmers in every other province, with threats and ridiculous arguments like it will end family farms and kill 4-H.

  • Anthony Van Rootselaar

    I would think that your reputation as a journalist suffers as a result of this article. You repeatedly state there were 25 farm fatalities in 2015 when in fact those are the numbers for 2014, the numbers for 2015 are 14 which represents a decline of nearly 40 percent year over year. But alas who deals with facts when you have an agenda.

    • Gerald Pilger

      Hello Anthony:

      You are correct, the 25 fatalities were for 2014 as reported by the Medical Examiner’s Office. I did not have the statistics when I wrote this story in December 2015 for 2015 numbers so thank you for the additional information. But I will argue 14 deaths is still deplorable! And a one year drop does not show a trend. The Alberta Farm Safety Centre website http://www.abfarmsafety.com/resources/statistics.htm
      has the numbers of death each year from 1997 to 2014. In that time period 331 people died on Alberta farms. To put this in perspective, this is more than TWICE as many deaths as the Canadian Armed Forces experienced in combat in Afghanistan (159 Canadian soldiers killed since 2002 in Afghanistan – 132 of these by enemy actions) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Forces_casualties_in_Afghanistan

      Regardless if it is 25 or 14 killed in 2015, we have a serious problem in Alberta. It is a problem we as farmers have not been able to solve so now actions are being forced on us. No question Bill 6 was poorly written and presented. However the response we as farmers had to the Bill given the deaths and injuries in agriculture coupled with the fact all other industries are subject to similar legislation left all farmers, in my opinion, looking less than credible and harmed our reputation. That was the point of my article – not a support of Bill 6.

      • Anthony Van Rootselaar

        If you did not have the numbers for 2015 you should have stated them as the 2014 numbers. In fact why don’t you mention that over 20% of those 25 deaths were over 80 years of age, numerous more over the age of 70? Do you realize comparable injuries in a rural vs urban center often become fatalities in rural settings due to lack of ALS services? That acceptable response times in rural area’s is nearly an hour and that we can likely be dead before a medivac is available in critical cases? Want to compare industries you do a 15-59 age group in every industry, not a 15-59 and a 0 to death.

        • Gerald Pilger

          Anthony, I already admitted my error in dates.

          As far as your cherry picking the data by limiting death counts comparisons to a 15-59 age group, may I point out the average age of farm operators in Alberta in 2011 was 54.5 years according to Stats Canada. Furthermore farmers operators are getting older (1991 47.3 years, 1996 48.2 years, 2001 49.9 years, 2006 52.2 years, 2011 54.5 years) 2011 is the last average age given by Stats Canada for Alberta farmers. I am not sure why you think if someone over 59 years of age is killed on a farm his death should not be counted when half of Alberta farmers are over 54.5 years old!

          And you probably made the best argument possible for OHS and mandated safety protocals on farms. You are absolutely right response times in rural and remote areas are much longer than in urban areas. Last year Global news reported on EMS response time. They found: “In rural communities within 200 kilometres of urban centres, the 90th percentile target is 40 minutes while in remote rural communities beyond 200 kilometres of urban centres, the 90th percentile target is 75 minutes.”
          So knowing EMS response times can be that long, largely because of travel time, and given the repeated claims by farmers they care about farm safety, I assume most farmers must have safety protocols in place in case of an accident, the best first aid kits, and are well trained in first aid response since they know help is a long way off. Am I correct in this assumption?

          • Anthony Van Rootselaar

            A first aid kit is hardly going to be life saving in the event of an injury that leads to a fatality. But yes we have them none the less. What will save lives is the establishment of additional stars air bases and landing pads at rural hospitals.
            You accuse me of Cherry picking but tell me how is it fair to compare fatalities between industries when one has individuals in their 80’s and another retires or doesn’t employ anyone over 65? Certainly your not suggesting that fatality rates on worksites have no correlation to age. That sir is why you pick a defined age bracket, it’s called a control group so as to not distort and manipulate the stats.

          • Gerald Pilger

            Anthony, the arguments you are putting forward are exactly what I was complaining about in my column. To say we should not count work place deaths of farmers over 59 because other industries do not have workers over such an age is irrelevant. An injury or death in the workplace is still an injury or death regardless of age.

            To try and blame the medical system for the farm deaths is equally wrong. STARS can and does land right at an accident site, including on farms, but still a first responder has had to assess the situation, stabilize the patient, and call STARS. Given the isolation of farms we will never have urban response times or trauma centers in every rural community but if there is a person on farm trained and certified in first aid, maybe that first aid kit will save a life.
            Most importantly, when medical attention is required, the accident or injury (or even the death) has already happened on the farm. If the injury, accident or death, had been prevented in the first place the response time would be irrelevant.

            The first step in solving any problem is admitting there is a problem. We have a farm safety problem in Alberta. If you want statistical proof of the problem read the study Agricultural Related Injuries in Alberta report http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$Department/deptdocs.nsf/all/aet13518/$FILE/Alberta_CAISP_Deaths1990-2009_FINAL.pdf
            Pay close attention to the findings that 87% of all fatalities on Alberta farms are work related, that 47% of fatalities were the farm operator, that 48% involved a tractor. Read that for every death there are 25 hospital admissions from farm accidents and 11 of those are major trauma admissions. Look at the chart on page 12 that shows the death rate in Alberta has been trending up. The chart on page 13 shows death rates for those over 60 is actually trending down, but the death rates for children and adults under 59 is going up. Look at the chart on page 15 where the age groups with the highest number of fatalities were 50-59 (56) and 60-69 (56).

          • annie

            As someone who has worked rural EMS in Alberta for more than 20 years, you are wrong. More helicopters and landing pads are not going to save rural lives. More rural staffing of ground ambulances in more rural areas will.
            Response times are far too long, and if you would look, they have worsened since AHS took over EMS services in 2009. Some rural areas have gone back to 1970ès levels of staffing and response times.
            That is unacceptable. But, we can thank the PC government for that mess.
            Do not discount the value of local EMS and fire departments.
            As well, most farmers in my community, although they have first aid kits, have never taken a first aid course, or if they did, it was 20+ years ago. They haven’t maintained those skills.

  • LinT

    While it may be late please note

    Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is now seeking nominations for
    working group members to participate in the next phase of consultations
    on the Enhanced Protection of Farm and Ranch Workers Act.

    Please go to http://www.alberta.ca/farm-and-ranch-consultations.cfm for more information.

    All of the uproar seems to have come down to one statement “they did not consult with us” I ask you all with respect ” Did anyone consult with you in the past? Did Klein send around a note asking if you wanted the General Hospital demolished, etc. etc”