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.
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.