Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Impact of Bill 17 on Alberta farms and ranches

Last week, Alberta passed Bill 17, which made important (but not earth-shattering) changes to the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. While there was little public discussion of it, this Act also affected farms and ranches.

Agriculture was brought into the ambit of Alberta’s employment laws in late 2015 (with the passage of Bill 6) but the full effect was delayed to allow for almost a year of consultations. The Employment Standards and Labour Relations working groups reported in late 2016 and additional feedback was sought on these recommendations in 2017.

Bill 17 entails a number of changes for agricultural employers. Effective January 1, 2018, most farmworkers become subject to most Employment Standards. That said, there continue to be no rules around hours of work, rest periods, and over time. Farm workers will be allowed 4 days of rest in 28 (at the employer’s discretion). Given the seasonal nature of farm work, the lack of rules to manage fatigue represents a clear health-and-safety issue the government ducked.

Children under 13 will not be allowed to work for pay. Children aged 13-15 will be restricted to light work (which has yet to be defined) or jobs for which they receive a permit. They will need to be paid the minimum wage. These rules do not apply to family members working on farms. How exactly this will play out on farms is unclear. The family-exemption creates a significant loophole whereby most child labour on farms remains unregulated.

Farm workers will be allowed to unionize under the Labour Relations Code (like any other group of workers) including accessing first-contract arbitration. The Public Emergency Tribunal (PET) provisions of the Labour Relations Code have been amended to allow the government to impose a PET if there is a serious threat to crops of livestock.

Employer-side stakeholders (under the umbrella of the Agricultural Coalition) are voicing several complaints, including:
  1. The Bill 6 consultations focused on the applicability of (now) old legislation. The changes made by Bill 17 (e.g., giving employees job-protected) sick leave were not contemplated.
  2. The government rejected many (although not all) of the recommendations made by the working groups, leading employers to question how seriously these recommendations were considered.
  3. Employers don’t want their workers to be able to join a union or collectively bargain with them.
Complaints that there was no consultation with agricultural producers around various new leave entitlements are simply untrue. There was a public consultation process around Employment Standards and nearly 5000 submissions were received. If agricultural producers did not choose to participate, that is on them.

It is impossible to say how seriously the government treated the working group recommendations. That some of the recommendations were adopted suggests that the recommendations were read and considered. Many of the recommendations would have thwarted the basic intent of Bill 6, so it is not surprising that the government didn’t implement them.

Similarly, the government is obligated to provide farm workers with some way to express their associational rights. While it isn’t surprising that agricultural employers don’t want their workers to unionize, expecting otherwise was not a reasonable expectation in light of the recent trend in Charter jurisprudence.

I think the most useful way to view the Agricultural Coalition’s response is as blame shifting. The Ag Coalition’s representatives resisted the basic thrust of Bill 6 during the working group process. As a strategy, this was a forlorn hope and Bill 17 is evidence that the Coalition’s strategy was not particularly successful. Rather than acknowledge that its strategy was a pretty weak one, the Ag Coalition is trying to deflect responsibility by inflicting political cost on the government.

I wonder if this approach is going to be any more effective? Given the anger over Bill 6 in rural Alberta (and the “seems fair” response in urban Alberta, where ND MLAs mostly come from), I’m not sure there is any more political damage the Ag Coalition can do to the government. Indeed, the proposed redistribution of riding boundaries is more evidence that the political salience of rural Alberta is fading (particularly given that this issue is basically rural employers seeking to roll back rural workers’ rights).

-- Bob Barnetson

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