After years of inaction, Alberta finally does the right thing for farm workers

After years of inaction, Alberta finally does the right thing for farm workersEdmonton – November 23, 2015 – After years of inaction and neglect from successive Conservative governments, agriculture workers in Alberta will finally have the same workplace rights and protections that other workers in the province have enjoyed for decades, thanks to new legislation that is being introduced by Rachel Notley's NDP government.

Last Tuesday, the government tabled Bill 6: The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act in the Alberta legislature, which extends basic workplace legislation to the 60,000 farm and ranch employees who work in the province's agriculture industry.

Once passed, the bill will provide farm workers with Workers' Compensation coverage by January 1, 2016; inclusion under the Occupational Health and Safety Act by the same date; and the ability to join unions and bargain collectively under Employment Standards and Labour Relations legislation by Spring 2016.

The bill is a major victory for the thousands of men and women who work on Alberta farms, and comes after years of advocacy by UFCW Canada and the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) in calling for collective bargaining rights, workers compensation coverage, and health and safety protections for farm and ranch workers in the province.

Prior to the bill's introduction, Alberta was the only province in Canada where agriculture workers were exempt from basic workplace legislation and could not refuse unsafe work. As a result, the vast majority of farm workers were denied financial assistance and retraining in the event that they were injured.

Despite the fact that there have been more than 400 agriculture fatalities and over 9,000 farm worker hospitalizations in Alberta since 1990, countless Conservatives governments failed to take action to protect agriculture workers by providing them with the same workplace rights and protections that apply to most other workers in the province. The Conservatives also refused to ban child labour on Alberta farms during their 44-year reign in power.

Over the past two decades, UFCW Canada has been the leading voice for legislative reform that aims to include agriculture workers in provincial collective bargaining and health and safety statutes across the country.

In Ontario, our union succeeded in securing occupational health and safety coverage for farm workers in 2006 after raising public awareness of the issue over the course of three years. Following a lengthy court battle and the release of a ground-breaking research report detailing the federal government's "rip-off" of seasonal agricultural workers who pay into Canada's Employment Insurance (EI) system, UFCW Canada also won EI parental leave benefits for migrant farm workers employed in Ontario in a major court case last year.

In light of evidence that was first presented to the B.C. Labour Relations Board (BCLRB) by UFCW Canada Local 1518, this past January the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld a ruling by the provincial Supreme Court that Mexico had engaged in union-busting activities and had tried to hide these activities following a successful unionization drive by migrant farm workers in 2012. 

UFCW Canada's Local Unions also represent hundreds of migrant and domestic agriculture workers at farms throughout B.C. and Quebec, and in association with the AWA, our union operates support centres across the country dedicated to helping farm workers.

The recent victory in Alberta, meanwhile, comes after a three-year campaign by UFCW Canada and the AWA  – dubbed "Safety NOW for Alberta agriculture workers" – aimed at securing workplace rights and health and safety protections for agriculture workers in the province.

"As the leading union for agriculture workers, UFCW Canada has long advocated for health and safety protections and workplace rights for farm workers across Canada, and so we are encouraged to see the Notley government taking steps to provide safety, equity, and fairness to all agriculture workers in Alberta," says UFCW Canada National President Paul Meinema.

"This legislation is long overdue, and we commend the Notley government for finally doing the right thing for Alberta farm workers," Brother Meinema adds.