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Alberta farm workers call for OHS coverage

By Alex Morrison
| www.cos-mag.com

Following a press release by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) last week, more light has been shed on the current condition of Agricultural workers in Alberta. With ongoing changes in the farming industry, labour groups are saying the laws should change with it.

Currently, farm workers are not covered by labour standards, occupational health and safety or workers’ compensation legislation in Alberta. According to the Alberta Federation of Labour, farm workers are not given the basic employment rights and protections, such as rest breaks, overtime or statutory holiday pay. They also have no health and safety protection, workers’ compensation in case of injury, and no unionizing rights.

Stan Raper, national coordinator for agricultural worker at the UFCW told COS in an interview that it is imperative that the government get these workers into the Health and Safety Act immediately.

“Currently, these workers do not have the basic essentials and legal protections we take for granted. I do not see what the Alberta Government is waiting for, they are the last province in Canada following Ontario’s acceptance to cover agricultural workers under OHSA. It makes no sense.”

The last province to bring farm workers into the Occupational Health and Safety Act was Ontario in 2006. Raper said it took them four years to accomplish that goal.

“We did launch the legal challenge, UFCW vs Ontario Government — Charter of Rights and Freedoms equity under the law argument — which was withdrawn after the Ontario Government agreed to implement,” he said.

In the press release, Wayne Hanley, the national president of UFCW Canada made clear that the Alberta Government is stalling on their farm workers and that this act was a form of deadly discrimination. Public affairs officer for the Alberta Government Chris Choden told COS that although the UFCW is entitled to its opinion, that is not the case.

“We are not stalling, currently the Ministry of Employment and Immigration and the Ministry of Agriculture are reviewing the report of a consultation for the agriculture workers. We have to ensure that the concerns of all stakeholders are taken into consideration, which is what is being reviewed now,” Choden said.

Review on this issue began in November 2009. It is currently unknown when the review will be completed.

The UFCW has started a campaign to help build awareness on the issue. The campaign entitled, End the Harvest of Death, encourages the public to send messages to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) has issued a counter campaign opposing the extension of the OH&S Act to farm workers. Their campaign, Thin Edge of the Wedge, states that they, too, are committed to improving health and safety, but they “just don’t think more regulation is the best way to do it.”

Instead, the CFIB maintains, “prevention and education is a more effective way to truly improve health and safety on the farm.”

Stan Raper disagrees.

“We have just learned about a counter campaign (by the CFIB) saying that the business they conduct is fine. They are basically saying that 13-plus deaths a year is OK. We don’t believe so and we are going to respond to that campaign very soon.”

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