Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Fall out from farm worker WCB exemption

Last week, the Parkland Institute released a report examining why Alberta continues to exclude farm workers from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage. The crux of it was that the Tories are in a symbiotic relationship with rural voters: farmers vote Tory and the Tories (more or less) enact policies farmers want.

There was some good coverage in the Edmonton Journal. The Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour (Ric McIver) responded to demands for mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for farm workers by saying:
“It’s a traditional system that we haven’t chosen to change.”
The Calgary Herald subsequently pointed out that maintaining historical practices does not necessarily result in ethical or otherwise desirable public policy (cough, cough…segregation, male-only franchise, slavery, residential schools). Maybe pubic policy should be based on a deeper rationale than “that’s the way we’ve always done it”?

McIver also said Alberta has other supports in place for farm workers who have endured financial ruin after an uninsured injury or death. The newspaper didn’t report what those supports are, but I would guess he’s talking about CPP or EI (which are actually federal programs), welfare and, as the Herald snarkily suggested, maybe food banks. 

Not really a great set of “supports” compared to what farm workers would get if their employers were compelled to carry under worker’s compensation coverage.
(A)nd he added that farm workers are not the only Albertans without WCB coverage. 
“When I ran an independent business, and just worked for myself, there were times when I wasn’t required to have WCB insurance, and I worked under those conditions for a number of years myself,” McIver said. 
He rejected a suggestion that a self-employed person chooses not to have coverage, while a farm worker has no choice and is instead at the mercy of his or her employer, who decides whether or not to purchase WCB coverage. 
“Respectfully, they do (have a choice). If they take a job that doesn’t have that coverage, they do. I think people need to make the best choices they can for themselves and their families.”
Where to start? Clearly there is a difference between choosing not to have coverage as a self-employed worker and having your employer choose not to cover you as a worker. In one case, you have a choice and in the other your don’t. This is so obvious as to warrant a "duuuh". 

Caught out by the reporter, McIver then switched arguments to “well, you don’t have to work there.” The idea that farm workers have a choice in the jobs is deceptively attractive. It is, theoretically, true. 

Yet, it ignores that farm work is (for the most part) unskilled labour. Those farm workers who have other employment options have largely departed the occupation (which is one reason farmers are bringing in foreign migrant workers). 

Much of the remainder of the workforce is, effectively, trapped in the occupation unless they want to quit and go on welfare (or just quietly starve to death).

What I’m most struck by is how unsympathetic the Minister’s response was to the plight of injured farm workers and the families of farm workers who died on the job. He (and by association, the government) looks like a real prick.

So what happened? Did he get really, really bad communications advice? Or did he fail to heed that advice? (When I worked in government, there were some Ministers who were simply unbriefable.)

Alternately, this may well be the best rationale the Tories can come up with for the continued exclusion of farm workers from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage. If so, perhaps they might want to change their policy?

-- Bob Barnetson

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