Wednesday, October 31, 2012

WCB for farm workers dust-up at the Leg

There was quite a dust-up in the legislature yesterday afternoon during debate over amendments to the Workers’ Compensation Act that would give first responders automatic coverage for post-traumatic stress disorder.

During the debate, the Liberals questioned whether extending automatic coverage to some groups was appropriate when other groups (such as farm workers) were excluded from even basic coverage (starting on p.369). 
Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I rise in support of this, having said something about these issues in the past. As is often the case in the House, one is struck by the ironies that confront us in this work, and maybe the word is even “contradictions.”
 In the House today we again have two farm workers, Eric Musekamp and Darlene Dunlop, who represent a major occupational group in the province who are not fighting for preferential access to WCB. They’re not even fighting to see their particular occupation group, farm workers, deal with PTSD. They simply want WCB. They have been excluded from any access to WCB. Our food producers: no mandatory requirement for farm workers to have WCB. There is the correct phrase. Any commercial employer who has paid farm workers has the option of whether to provide compensation for injury or death in this province. We are today talking about accelerating access for a particular group of professions in Alberta who are finding it difficult to get appropriate, timely, effective WCB coverage, and we’re ignoring a whole group of people, thousands and thousands of workers who produce our food every day and who don’t have guaranteed access to any compensation, who don’t live within the context of occupational health and safety standards, who aren’t even under the labour code in this province in 2012. …
Wild Rose MLA Kerry Towle then responds to Swann’s assertion that farmers ought to be compelled to enroll in workers’ compensation insurance (like every other employer).

She characterizes Swann’s request for mandatory WCB for farms as premised upon the assertion that farmers intentionally endanger workers and don’t cover them in the hope that they will get hurt. Basically, she demonizes Swann for purportedly demonizing farmers (although, when you read Swann’s statement, he doesn’t actually demonize farmers, he just wants farm workers to have coverage).

After an incoherent digression about how calling turkeys helps a 10-year-old understand that running into the street is dangerous (so child labour is thus good?), Towle trots out the bogeyman of farm bankruptcy if workers’ compensation is required. There is no evidence the WCB premiums will force farmers out of business. 

Moreover, not having workers’ compensation coverage simply means that the cost associated with workplace injury on farms is transferred to the taxpayer (via the health system) and the worker. Is it in the public interest to subsidize business so apparently marginal that they can only exist by externalizing the cost of injury to others?

Then she suggests child labour teaches “some good morals and good ethics” and that farmers are somehow disadvantaged in Alberta. Apparently being able to deny farm workers virtually every employment right that every other worker in Alberta (not to mention farm workers in every other province) have is an indicator of disadvantage?

Anyhow, you can judge this for yourself:
Mrs. Towle: … You know, as a person who was a farmer – my husband and I owned a turkey farm. We were farmers, and we were a corporation, a full-blown corporation. We were incorporated. There were two of us. Yes, our three-year-old daughter all the way up until the age of eight helped us out on our farm. This is what family farms do. Not only that. My father-in-law is a big, huge dairy farmer, milks over 220 cows: again, a corporation; again, a family farm. His daughter farms; his son-in-law farms. Every once in a while we go over and help, and my sister-in-law’s five children assist in that family farm operation.
 There’s one thing that’s forgotten here. Most of these family farm operations, which are nasty little corporations – I understand that – do this because we’re building a lifestyle. Part of the reason, and I experienced it myself, that we’re building that lifestyle is because we want our children to grow food for Albertans, and most of us do that in a very safe and effective manner. I don’t believe for a second that there’s a single farmer out there that is purposely putting their employees in dangerous situations, not covering them with WCB, and purposely hoping that at some point in time they’ll be injured just so they don’t have to cover them. That’s not the case. I think we need to take away this whole idea on the left that all of a sudden every farmer in this province is bad, bad, bad because they’re incorporated and they’re doing things with their children. I personally find it offensive that we continuously hear this. They’re owning a business and teaching their children about morals, values, and good work ethics. My little girl for five years helped us; my little girl called turkeys. Now, hey, the people in my town thought that it was cruel to call a turkey. But do you know one thing that my little girl does understand? My 10-year-old little girl understands when I tell her: don’t run across the street in traffic; you will die. She understands exactly what that means. If you start imposing WCB regulations on family farms, you will darn well put them out of business. It’s about time that people on the left understood what our farms do for our people and what they bring to this province. This is absolutely ridiculous. In this case we’re talking about family farms, but it’s not limited to family farms. What about the restaurants that bring in students? We hire them at 12 years old. I was one of those students growing up. At 12 years old I went in and washed some dishes, got some good morals and good ethics, and went forward. Today I’m a hard-working Albertan giving back to Alberta. I’m absolutely in favour of protecting those that need to be covered. We absolutely need to protect those people who are in traumatic situations on a daily basis and those people who need to be covered by WCB and need to have that presumptive nature removed and also have proven or have the presumptive nature removed so that if they have WCB, they have proper coverage and they have the proper clinicians to help them. There’s no question about that. But we need to stop turning this argument into: let’s go bad on those big, bad farm corporations; they’re out to hurt everybody. It’s about time somebody started standing up for the farmers of this province.
When the farm workers union attempted to follow up with Towle in the hallway afterwards, she wouldn’t engage and another Wildrose MLA threatened to have the sheriffs eject the farm worker reps from the legislature. It should be interesting to see how the government handles questions about this issue during the next few years.

-- Bob Barnetson 

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