One of few positive signs around the long-standing exclusion of Alberta farm workers from virtually all of statutory employment laws was a January motion at the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers (now the Alberta Federation of Agriculture) AGM that said:
Farm Labour Resolution 2013-10: Be it resolved that WRAP approach the WCB to discuss inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act.
At the time, most observers (including myself) thought that this signaled the AFA was going to explore mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for farms and ranches (which are presently excluded from mandatory coverage—although employers can purchase voluntary coverage). Apparently, this motion was passed “very narrowly”.
This 2013 motion follows on a 2011 motion that was similar and also passed very narrowly:
Delegates to the recent Wild Rose Agricultural Producers (WRAP) annual meeting in Edmonton took on the contentious farm workers’ rights issue, and voted to lobby the Alberta government to include agricultural workers under the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). The motion passed by one vote.
In late January, the AFA was quoted as saying WCB coverage was good news:
(President Lynn) Jacobson said WCB coverage makes sense because most farmers don't carry insurance to cover their liability if a worker gets injured.
"Really, when you think about it, having some type of coverage is a win for you as a producer. You can't really lose by it. But if you don't have it, you could lose your farm."
Yet, in February, the AFA clarified it position in an article in the Prairie Post:
“We are not pushing WCB to include agricultural workers; we are simply gathering information and exploring the options," explained Sheryl Rae, executive director, WRAP, the largest agriculture organization in Alberta.
“Gathering information and exploring options” is an interesting interpretation of the January motion. The motion could mean that, although why the AFA would need a motion from the floor of its AGM to go gather information is hard to fathom: isn’t this what industry organizations do as a matter of course?
Recently, I received a copy of an October 10 letter from the AFA to Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture. It says, in part:
AFA is often publically portrayed as having a resolution on our books that calls for mandatory WCB coverage. As we discussed with you during our meeting, a producer-initiated resolution was passed at our AGM that directed our board to “approach the WCB to discuss the inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act.” In hindsight, this wording may have fallen short of its intent, which was to seek clarity around corporate liability protection and how coverage for family members, neighbors, and friends assisting with specific farm operations is handled. We have since met with the WCB Manager of Customer Services and will be taking that information forward to our membership.
This paragraph deserves some unpacking. First, note that the AGA characterizes the motion “producer-initiated”. I’m not sure if that means it was a motion from the floor or not, but this wording seems to distance the AGA’s executive from the motion. It may signal that there is still some organizational resistance to the notion of mandatory coverage, which accords with the reportedly close votes in 2011 and 2013.
Second, the AGA expands upon its February interpretation of the motion to indicate the motion directed the AGA “to seek clarity around corporate liability protection and how coverage for family members, neighbors, and friends assisting with specific farm operations is handled.” The AGA also notes that the January motion’s “wording may have fallen short of its intent.”
Now I wasn’t at the AGM, but this interpretation seems like a bit of a stretch. The motion was: “Be it resolved that WRAP approach the WCB to discuss inclusion of agricultural employment under the WCB Act.”
While the motion doesn’t quite authorize the AGA to seek changes in the Workers’ Compensation Regulation (although the 2011 motion seems to), it also doesn’t suggest the AGA simply seek clarity around the scope of voluntary coverage. Rather, it directs the AGA to commence discussion about included agricultural employment (which is currently excluded) under the WCB Act. That is to say, the motion seems to direct action toward changing the status quo.
Perhaps what we’re seeking here is an internal division in the AFA on the issue of mandatory WCB. This is consistent with the 2011 and 2013 motions passing narrowly. If the organization is divided, this puts the executive of the AFA in a tough spot. On the one hand, they must take action on the motion but, on the other hand, they may risk the departure of those members who opposed the motion.
Indeed, the AFA exec may also be divided (or even opposed), which might explain why it characterizes the motion as “producer-initiated”. Walking back the motion to “gathering information and exploring options” may well be an effort to minimally comply with the motion without alienating either camp.
The upshot seems to be that the AFA remains committed to the status quo on workers’ compensation coverage (voluntary coverage only), uptake upon which the AGA characterizes as “low”. Based on WCB industry profiles, it looks like about 7% or so.
For farm workers who will be injured this year, this means they will most likely continue to be without wage-loss compensation or medical benefits. It also suggests that winning producers over on issues where they have a vested interest is difficult. This, of course, is why it is often necessary for governments to impose regulation on industries. It is also why there is so much skepticism about Alberta's seemingly endless consultations with agricultural producers around improving workplace safety: so long as employers can externalize the cost of injury onto workers and the health-care system, there is little incentive for them to operate more safely.
Interestingly, temporary foreign workers who come to Canada to work in agriculture must be provided workers’ compensation coverage. It is a bit hard to reconcile this (laudable) treatment of non-citizens with the government’s unwillingness to extend similar benefits to Canadian citizens who work in Alberta’s agricultural industry.
-- Bob Barnetson