Thursday, November 1, 2012

Farm safety questioning continues

The fireworks over farm safety continued in the legislature yesterday during question period (p .416). This sort of debate provides intereating insight into the politics and politicking around farm safety and child labour in Alberta. 

Liberal David Swann raised the denial of farm workers of virtually all employment rights that the rest of us take for granted with Minister of Ag and Rural Development Vern Olson:
Dr. Swann: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Over the summer there was discomfort across the agricultural sector over the possibility of a boycott of Alberta products from international corporations such as Pepsi, Frito-Lay, McDonalds, and Yum! foods, who have strong ethical procurement positions related to child labour and human rights in agriculture. It is interesting to note that the city of Medicine Hat is now also looking at its procurement policy. As most Albertans are shocked to realize, the paid people employed to produce our food, not including family members of family farms, are without protection under occupational health and safety, WCB, and labour standards for children. To the agriculture minister: are you concerned that these major buyers of Alberta meat and other produce, seeing the conflict, may be forced to boycott . . . 
 The Speaker: The hon. minister. 
 Mr. Olson: Well, first of all, Mr. Speaker, I will acknowledge the hon. member’s interest in this issue. He’s been talking about it for some time. I want to acknowledge that, but I also want to say that I’m very disappointed at his comments, which put our industry at risk in terms of talking about boycotts and, I would say, encouraging multinationals to boycott Alberta farmers, Alberta producers, and Alberta workers. Now, we take this issue very seriously. We’re very interested in worker safety, too. That’s why we have struck a Farm Safety Advisory Council. I have their report. The Minister of Human Services and I are working on a response.
It is interesting that Olson emphasizes the potential economic effect of a boycott (a symptom of child labour in farming) rather addressing the root cause (the existence of child labour on farms, in contravention of international law). As an observation, if Olson took the issue of farm safety "very seriously" wouldn't he do something with the report from the farm safety committee in the eight months since he received it?

Swann then changes tactics and questions Minister of Finance Doug Horner about the cost transfer that occurs because farmers are not required to carry workers’ compensation coverage in Alberta. This is an interesting angle because it highlights how farms are given special treatment by the government and that one of the effects is to transfers production costs onto taxpayers and injured workers.
Dr. Swann: Thank you. Well, as a lawyer I’m concerned about your lack of commitment to human rights in this province. To the Finance and Treasury Board minister: is it acceptable to you that commercial agricultural operations choosing not to have WCB are downloading health care costs onto the public purse to the tune of $4.5 million annually, at a minimum, according to a local expert? That’s a lot of hip replacements, road work. How do you feel about that? 
Mr. Horner: Well, Mr. Speaker, first of all, I’d like to know who the local expert is that came up with that number. Secondly, coming from a farming family myself and having some history in the agricultural community, I’m obviously concerned about farm safety, very concerned. I’ve had friends who have been injured on the farm because they were farming their farm. The two ministers are working on the report. We expect to have the results of that soon.
As it happens, I’m the local “expert” (although I wouldn't use that term myself). Here’s the estimate based on what data is available. If someone has better data or a sharper analysis, I’d love to look at it:

In 2011, the WCB reported 2825 workers on 1300 “farming operations” covered by workers’ compensation in Alberta. “Farming operations” exclude apiaries, feedlots, greenhouses, etc. but “farming operations” seem to encompass the largest group of agricultural workers (and there was no way to weight the data properly to include these other types of operations) so I used farming operations data.

Among workers on farming operations, there were 76 workers’ compensation claims accepted with total medical aid cost of $227,000 (wage-loss and rehab costs are excluded). To calculate the overall annual medical costs of agricultural injuries, I first divided the medical costs by number of workers ($227,000/2825 workers). This gets us a rough figure of $80.35 in medical aid costs per worker.

I then multiplied the annual per-worker medical costs by the number of agricultural workers in Alberta. There is no agreed upon number of agriculture workers so I chose 60,000 so as to account for the number of individual operators (about 49,000 from the 2006 federal ag census) plus the number of waged agricultural workers (about 12,000, a widely accepted estimate). The upshot is $80.35 x 60,000 = $4,821,000 in medical costs per year.

At present, the WCB pays $227,000 in medical aid costs so I took that out of the $4,821,000 to get $4,594,000 in annual injury costs. This $4,594,000 is the medical costs from agricultural workplace injury paid for by Alberta Health Services and individual workers each year. In effect, this is a cost transferred from industry (which would otherwise pay for it via WCB premiums) to the general taxpayer and workers because workers’ compensation insurance is not mandatory in agriculture.

There are many caveats with such a rough calculation. First, the number of agricultural workers is really pivotal in the calculation and I am admittedly guessing at this number. The province should be able to come up with a better number.

Second, there is significant under-reporting of injuries (about 40% of injuries go unreported) thus the true overall transferred costs might well be much higher (e.g., $7,656,667).

Third, I have used data from “farming operations” as the basis of the per-worker cost. Workers in feedlots have much higher medical aid costs ($187 per worker per year), thus the calculation will underestimate the true cost transfer, but not in a way I can correct for.

Fourth, this estimate is likely to exclude most costs associated with occupational disease. This would drive the number up appreciably.

So back to the Leg. Swann asks again Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock when the province will be responding to the report by the Advisory Committee on Farm Safety that was submitted in February (and leaked this summer). 
Dr. Swann: Yes. They’ve been working on it for decades. How many more decades, Mr. Minister? To the Human Services minister: since the Premier pledged to extend occupational health and safety and WCB to paid farm workers, excluding family farm members, the question is: when? Albertans want to see change. 
Mr. Hancock: Mr. Speaker, seeing as that question has been answered twice already, that we’re working on it and it’ll be coming shortly, perhaps I could use the time that I have to ask the hon. member to stop disrespecting potato farmers and other farmers in the province by encouraging international companies who have got policies to boycott their products.
Hancock seems to be one of the sharper and more moderate PC ministers. That he chose in his comment to advance the interests of potato farmers allegedly using child labourers rather than the interests of children I think tells us a fair bit about where the government is going to come down on farm safety laws (and in particular child labour) in one of Alberta's three most dangerous industries.

-- Bob Barnetson

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