After three weeks of vociferous criticism from farmers, ranchers, industry groups and opposition parties, Alberta’s NDP Government has made an about turn on controversial Bill 6 - the Enhanced Protection of Farm Workers Act. On December 7, 2015, Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson and Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier vowed to introduce a number of amendments to Bill 6, which will have the effect of excluding farm and ranch owners, and their families and unpaid neighbours, from occupational health and safety regulations as well as Workers’ Compensation Board coverage. Under the amended Bill, families may still elect to choose Workers’ Compensation coverage for family members and unpaid individuals (i.e. neighbours); however, such registration would be voluntary.
Forced to backpedal days before the Alberta legislature rises for its winter break, the Government has been widely criticized for a lack of consultation with farmers and ranchers in pushing forward Bill 6. In particular, Alberta Hutterite colonies raised concerns that the original Bill was at odds with the community life style associated with Hutterite farming operations. During question period on December 7, 2015, Premier Notley blamed “miscommunication” with Albertans for the heavily criticized roll-out of the Bill, stating the legislation was never intended to apply to families and neighbours. However, this appears to be at odds with various documents published by the Government’s own departments during the early days of Bill 6 which explicitly indicated that Workers’ Compensation Board coverage and occupational health and safety regulations would apply to unpaid workers of for-profit farming operations, such as families and neighbours.
Following the announcement of the amendments, the Alberta Federation of Labour immediately moved to endorse Bill 6. Labour groups such as the Alberta Federation of Labour appear to be quite interested in those workers employed in large-scale agricultural operations such as feedlots, greenhouses and factory farms. Bill 6 will eliminate the exemptions under the Employment Standards Code for farms and ranches, and allow agricultural workers to collectively bargain under the Labour Relations Code. Unions likely see opportunities in organizing workers employed by large-scale agricultural operations.
Bill 6 and the proposed amendments will affect about 43,000 farms and ranches with 60,000 workers in Alberta in the following key ways:
- Farms and ranches will be subjected to occupational health and safety regulations only where non-owner or non-family waged individuals are involved in their operations, and only then to those non-owner and non-family waged individuals;
- Workers’ Compensation Board coverage will be required for the agricultural sector only where non-owner or non-family waged individuals are involved in its operation, and only then to those non-owner and non-family waged individuals (families may elect to provide Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for family members and unpaid individuals);
- It will remove exemptions from the Employment Standards Code that previously excluded farms and ranches; and
- It will allow agricultural workers to join unions and bargain the terms and conditions of employment collectively.