Monday, January 21, 2013

Movement on farm safety

The Wildrose Agricultural Producers (WRAP) held their annual general meeting in Banff January 14-16.  WRAP is the largest producer funded general farm organization in Alberta. At this meeting, I’m told two resolutions were passed:
Farm Labour Resolution 2013-10Be it resolved that WRAP approach the WCB to discuss inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act Farm Labour Resolution 2013-11Be it resolved that WRAP on behalf of healthy child development and agricultural workplace safety, supports legislated child labour standards for all paid child farmworkers
The WCB application is not entirely surprising. WRAP has been highlighting the liability protection aspect of workers’ compensation to its members for several years. And the settlement in Kevan Chandler’s death recently put Tongue Creek Feeders into bankruptcy. If WRAP’s application to the WCB to make workers’ compensation mandatory to the entire industry is successful, it will achieve industry-wide liability coverage without giving non-subscribing farms any competitive advantage.

It is not clear which industries (under Schedule A of the workers’ compensation regulation) this application will apply to. For example, farming, farm contracting (such as haying), feedlots and fertilizer spreading are all listed as separate industries. It is also unclear if the WCB will approve such an application. Making coverage mandatory for a high-claim industry may entail some short-term costs (until premiums and experience rating catch up). There may also be significant long-term risk for the accident fund around occupational disease.

On January 17, WRAP president Lynn Jacobson appeared on the CBC Eyeopener to discuss child labour standards. The child labour resolution is a bit vague. My sense is that it means striking the child labour law exemption for farms contained in s.3(e) of the Employment Standard Code.  (The remaining exemptions (minimum wage, over time, vacation pay) would all remain in effect.) This would make it illegal to employ anyone who should be in school during school hours and it would trigger limits on the kind of employment allowable for those under age 15.

While this resolution is certainly a morale victory for those lobbying against child farm labour (specifically, the Farmworkers Union of Alberta and Liberal MLA David Swann), the question remains whether this resolution entails any meaningful protections for most child farm labourers. As Jacobson mentions in his interview, the child labour restrictions would likely not apply to children working on their parents’ farm. Jacobson doesn’t explain this but the gist is such children would not be “entitled to or in receipt of wages” which appears to be the relevant test to trigger the prohibition. In this way, such a change would be unlikely to affect on WRAP members (or their children).

This change also does not address the lack of basic safety rights for all farmworkers (e.g., right to know about hazards, right to refuse unsafe work) caused by the farming and ranch exemption under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

So who would these restrictions apply to? In the interview, Jacobson dances around the issue. He notes that WRAP is concerned about large commercial operations or corporate farms that are employing child labour as part of their work force. He also eventually agrees that those portions of the agriculture industry where there is hand-labour (e.g., berry picking, fruit picking, hoeing in fields) is the target.

But who are these producers? I’ve honestly no idea. But an editorial by the Lethbridge Herald hints that the target may include various religious communities (e.g., Hutterites, Mennonites) that employ children in their fields:
Changing demographics in southern Alberta also play a role, as growing numbers of Mennonites from Mexico and South American countries increase the need for more formalized legislation, and raises an issue school boards, the province and local municipalities are hesitant to address - education. 
 Similar comments are evident in the Vauxhall Advance:
In the M.D. of Taber, with a growing population of Mennonites from Mexico and southern Alberta, the issues of child labour and schooling have long been sacred cows, and have generated much discussion among local political leaders and school-board officials. Those discussions are continuing, and higher levels of government are also being involved.
“Last week, we met with the minister of education,” said M.D. of Taber Reeve Brian Brewin, who added the home-school issue is also getting distorted. “It’s no education we are getting worried about, not home education.” 
And in the Taber Times:
Unfortunately, I have firsthand knowledge of children as young as eight grading potatoes and cleaning out cattle liners on farms. I have seen the crippled hand of a thirteen year old from a potato grading accident. These are not the farmers children, who years ago missed some school to help with the harvest. These are children whose father works as a farmhand, and due to cultural norms, allows his children to work for these operations. These families are predominately from Mexico and in this area, are usually referred to as Mexican Mennonite families. … The children then go to work on the farm their father works on. As difficult as this is to believe in this day and age, this practice is common all over Southern, Central and Northern Alberta.  
And the Vauxhall Advance again:
But perhaps it is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about in the pre-dominant underage farm labour found here in southern Alberta with Low German Mennonites.
 As mentioned in this week’s Vauxhall Advance as well, is the discussion on home schooling which is common among Mennonite households where often Mennonite children, some not yet in their teens, are taken out of the education system to help out with farming.
While proving nothing, these comments suggest that we need to be mindful of both the economic and moral incentives of these resolutions. Restricting child labour, while likely a good thing, may also reduce a competitive advantage that religious groups have over traditional producers.

It is unclear how the Conservative government will respond to this set of resolutions. Tory MLAs have always maintained they will enact regulations when agricultural producers tell the government they want them. Here are a small sample of these kinds of comments from former Ministers of Agriculture:
It’s about the producers’ desire. I know that if the producers, in their wisdom not ours, were to come forward in a majority view to the minister of agriculture, he would bring that forward to this table (Shirley McClellan, May 18, 2006).
 I will do exactly what the agriculture community asks for. Now, I’m responsible for dozens of operations, whether it’s cattle, hogs, grain, maybe the AAMD and C. None of these people have come to me asking for these regulations that you’re asking for (George Groenveld, April 29, 2008).
 I had it reinforced for me again this morning in a meeting that I had in Trochu, Alberta, with a group of 25 agricultural producers when I asked them right flat out how we could help them and they said: no more regulations. I said: are we moving in the right direction with our farm safety instead of workmen’s compensation and occupational health and safety? They said: absolutely; this is what we want (Jack Hayden, March 15, 2011).
So the industry (or at least the biggest general producer group) has now asked for more regulation. So will the government enact child labour laws in agriculture?  And, given the limited scope of the protections in the WRAP motions, will doing so make much of a difference in farm safety? It will be interesting to see how these issues play out over the next few months.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

  1. The Calgary Herald is reporting the province will not be moving forward with any farm safety-related legislation in the spring session:

    Apparently more consultation is needed. You gotta wonder what additional of consultation is necessary given the province has been consulting with farmers on this since 2010?