As the provincial government embarks on its mission to repeal and replace controversial agricultural workplace legislation, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Devin Dreeshen stopped in Airdrie for a discussion with local farmers.
The visit was among several consultations this summer as the United Conservative Party crafts the Farm Freedom and Safety Act (FFSA), which is intended to replace Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (known as Bill 6).
“When we do develop this legislation, we’ll have a lot of authority to say that we’ve talked to thousands of farmers,” Dreeshen said.
He contrasted this approach with the previous New Democratic Party (NDP) government’s introduction of Bill 6 – which came into effect Jan. 1, 2016 – with limited consultation, sparking demonstrations by farmers.
“The legislation doesn’t work,” Dreeshen said. “It’s really poorly written, so we’re trying to develop a common sense piece of legislation that does work.”
Specifically, he said Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) codes under the current legislation are not practical, and it is difficult for farmers – with their varied operations – to comply.
Gordon Bussey, a local farmer who operates east of Airdrie, said while Bill 6 has not directly hurt his operation, there are problems with the legislation.
“It certainly is onerous, and I think it was ill-conceived when it was brought in,” he said.
Bussey was one of 22 people to take part Aug. 19 at the Hampton Inn and Suites. Along with Dreeshen, the forum was attended by MLAs Angela Pitt, Airdrie-East; Peter Guthrie, Airdrie-Cochrane; and Nicholas Milliken, Calgary-Currie.
“There’s some large agricultural producers in the room right now, and we’ll have some really good input…. I’m excited to hear what the Airdrie and area people have to say,” Pitt said.
She added there has been an appetite among her constituents to see Bill 6 repealed since its introduction.
“The people just weren’t on board,” Pitt said. “They didn’t want it, they didn’t need it.”
Guthrie noted safety standards are not the same for the agriculture sector as in other industries.
“There are certain aspects of Bill 6 that will still move forward, but…there does need to be regulations that makes sense,” he said.
The two-hour session focused on four subjects – employment standards, labour relations, worker compensation and occupational health and safety.
Alysson Blaine, a member of the consultation team, said the new legislation proposes to “give farmers the option of buying workplace insurance from [Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB)] or another supplier, as long as basic coverage is provided; exempt small farms from employment legislation; to ensure basic safety standards are in place; and to reduce the regulatory burden and minimize red tape for farmers and ranchers.”
The majority of the feedback centered on the issue of OHS, engagement specialist Sarah Murrant said, with participants resoundingly expressing a need for safety, balanced with “the right amount of regulation.”
“Exactly what that is, there’s some suggestions about safety books and safety training for kids, safety training for adults, farm safety days – there’s a lot of great suggestions,” she said.
There were very few comments on labour relations, which Murrant said has been consistent throughout the consultation process.
“We’ve heard that at this point, it’s not a huge issue on farms. There hasn’t been an application to form a union in an agriculture business in Alberta, to date,” she said.
On workers compensation, Murrant said, participants expressed a desire for choice in the insurance offered. This echoed a common theme the government has found throughout consultations, Dreeshen said.
“[Under] Bill 6, there’s mandatory WCB coverage,” he said. “There’s lots of farmers that would tell us they have a private insurance provider that they’ve had for years, that they prefer and will continue to use and are using, but they have to pay a WCB premium, as well. They have two policies, and they have no intention of using WCB.”
Finally, regarding employment standards, Murrant said, flexibility and the consideration of the seasonal nature of the industry were emphasized.
Overall, Bussey said he felt the consultation was an important forum for local producers to articulate their thoughts on the legislation, and demonstrated the government’s commitment to listening.
“It’s really important,” he said. “We elected a government in this province to be responsive to the people, and I think this shows that they are being responsive to the electorate of the province.”
According to Dreeshen, the consultations will continue through to the end of August, with an online survey available until Aug. 31 at alberta.ca/farm-freedom-and-safety-engagement.aspx. He added the government hopes to introduce the new legislation by the end of the year.