Thursday, November 3, 2016

Farm workers in western Canada

Last week, I picked up the first copies of “Farm workers in western Canada”, a book I co-edited with Shirley McDonald (UBC) and pubished by the University of Alberta Press. The chapters examine farm work from several perspectives with specific focuses on Alberta farm workers and on foreign migrant workers in Alberta, BC and Manitoba.

The most power chapter is Darlene Dunlop’s “The personal experiences of an Alberta farm worker and activist”. Dunlop is one of the two key players in the Farmworkers Union of Alberta and her story provides insight into the life of a farm worker as well as the struggle for farm worker rights. Here are some excerpts.

On her first job:
This combination of farm, ranch, and feedlot was a little country unto itself and the farmer was its dictator. He owned everything you could see and then some. His favourite expression was “I’m a farmer in Alberta so I can do whatever the fuck I want.” And he usually did. …

I found myself bullied by this farmer. I was operating a pay loader on the roads between fields. He wanted everything done as fast as possible. He would drive behind you honking his horn and waving his arm out the window pushing you to go faster. The problem was that you would lose steering control if you went past a certain speed.

I refused to accelerate. One of my co-workers was pressured to go faster when he found himself in this situation. He lost control and the pay loader flipped over and crushed him to death. Eight farm fatalities were attributed to this farming operation over a twenty year period. That is what comes of no standards, no template for safety.
On children working on farms:
Working there gave me my first opportunity to drive one of those big rigs. It came when the farmer held the keys out. He didn’t care who drove it, me or a nine-year-old boy. … It was common practice to let him drive the big rig on the roads to the fields. He was also tasked with operating large farm equipment, but he could often be seen playing around with it, which was dangerous when there is no roll bar. I wasn’t about to be chauffeured by a nine-year-old, so away I drove. No license, no knowledge, just the keys and the lad as my passenger.
On pesticides:
I had a bad experience with Malathion, a nerve agent to kill bugs. It’s commonly added to grain when transferring it by auger from the truck to a grain bin. …I expressed my concerns to a farmer about using a tuna can and my bare hands to scoop the Malathion out of the bag. He scowled. I asked him if he had ever read the label and told him it says: “Do Not Get on Clothes”. He squatted, scanned the label and its warnings, then left. Upon his return, he presented me with a tuna can attached to a short stick so I wouldn’t have to reach so far into the bag.
On safety:
The owner of the large hay farm expected his workers to do exactly what they were told no matter what. He told Eric to do some welding on a fuel tank; Eric would do it only by the book and was fired. The next worker did not refuse. Why he didn’t, I don’t know. Didn’t he know how dangerous it was? What I do know is that he started the welding job and blew up himself, the shop and all that was in there. The farmer got a new shop and new tools. The farm worker’s wife got a funeral and years in court. The last we heard, this young widow and her children were still in court.
Dunlop’s story is not just a powerful indictment of farming practices in Alberta but also of the lack of political courage by the former Tory government to address them. It reminds us that, when farmers protest the cost of safety and the Wildrose promises to roll back farm safety laws, what they are really doing is transferring the cost of farm safety onto workers in the form of injury and death.

-- Bob Barnetson

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