Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Farm safety tussle continues

Alberta is the only province that continues to deny Alberta’s ~12,000 farm workers basic safety rights, such as the right to refuse unsafe work or the right to know about dangers in their workplace. You can see me chatting about this issue on Alberta Primetime last week here. CBC is also working on a series about this issue.

Last year, the Alberta government struck the Farm Safety Advisory Council. This council was designed to provide the government with advice on issues around farm safety and comprised mostly industry and government representatives (there was one appointee from UFCW to represent the voice of labour). Many people (including myself) saw this as a stalling tactic by the government, which was hoping the issue of regulating farm safety in Alberta would go away.

It hasn’t and likely won’t.  Farm safety is a good wedge issue for the Liberals and the NDP. There is little urban appetite for workplace rules that result in maimed and killed farm workers (including kids and migrant workers). Yet, if the PCs attempt to mollify urban voters by regulating safety, they will lose more rural support to the Wildrose. I expect further political hammering on this issue.

In the spring, the Council provided the Minister of Agriculture with a report about farm safety regulation. Neither the Minster of Agriculture nor the Minister of Human Services have made any public moves on this report (like releasing it) for seven months. On the weekend, the Calgary Herald revealed it had a copy of a draft report, which was confirmed as broadly representative of the final report.

The gist of the report (which I have not seen) is (not surprisingly) that farming should remain outside the ambit of provincial OHS laws and that industry should use education and some form of self-regulation to make things safer. To be fair to the government, it has not taken a position on whether or not it will live up to the commitment made by the Premier last September to regulate farm safety. But this report is rather discouraging.

The assertion that education is a more effective way to reduce injuries than enforcement is simply untrue. Studies indicate that farm safety education has no impact on injury rates—likely because hazardous conditions remain unmitigated. This recommendation ought to give the government significant pause about adopting the council’s (self-serving) report.

The political bind for the government is that doing something may cost significant rural support (and may set off a feud in caucus). Yet (once again) doing nothing means the government will have the blood of the next dead farm worker plainly on its hands. If that farm worker is a kid (and there is a good chance a kid will die doing farm work next year), platitudes about how the death is “tragic” and “deeply saddening” may not be enough to sweep the issue under the carpet. 

Eventually, urban voters are going to wonder why the government keeps accepting the recommendations of the foxes about hen-house security in the wake of all of these dead chickens.

-- Bob Barnetson

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