New Democrats to amend farm safety bill for ‘clarity’

New Democrats to amend farm safety bill for ‘clarity’
Wildrose MPs joined hundreds of farmers who rallied against Bill 6 at the Alberta legislature Dec. 3.Photo courtesy of the Wild Rose Party.

Alberta’s governing New Democrats have heeded a growing crop of concerns over their proposed farm safety law.

Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, would force farms and ranches to adhere to Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) requirements.

Opposition MLAs and family farm owners reacted quickly and severely when the bill was revealed in mid-November. As many as 1,000 people employed in the agriculture sector brought their beef with the law to the steps of the legislature on Nov. 30, with dozens of others using their vehicles to slow traffic on Highways 2 and 5.

A day later, Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Lori Sigurdson announced the bill would be amended for clarity.

“It has never been our government’s intention to interfere with what family members, friends and neighbours have always done on the family farm,” she said in a press release. “That’s why we will amend Bill 6 to make clear what was our intention all along – that farm families would be exempt from those laws, which were designed to protect paid employees.”

The proposed amendments would:

  • make clear WCB coverage would be required only for paid employees, with an option for farmers to extend coverage to unpaid workers like family members, neighbours and friends;
  • make clear that Occupational Health and Safety standards apply when a farm employs one or more paid employees at any time of the year.

Ongoing consultations will help form the basis of regulations to be developed by 2017 to ensure the unique workplace characteristics of farms and ranches are recognized, according to the government. One session was held in Grande Prairie on November 26 and eight more are scheduled in December. The Dec. 1 Red Deer session attracted an overflow of interest, with participants filling the room and spilling out into the foyer, prompting the government to work with venues to increase capacity at each session.

As of Dec. 1 all but the Dec. 14 Athabasca session had filled up with zero seats left. Later in the week hundreds had been added to the online registration page. Register to attend at https://ers.humanservices.alberta.ca/jstl-farmandranch.aspx.

“We appreciate the concerns farmers and ranchers have raised. To be clear, Bill 6 is not in any way going to affect children doing their chores, participating in 4-H, or learning the family business,” Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Oneil Carter said. “It does not prevent neighbours, relatives and friends from helping each other out during busy times (nor does it) apply to recreational activities such as riding horses or hunting on farmland.”

Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean took issue with a claim the premier apparently made during a phone call with reporters that concern over Bill 6 was caused by “misinformation.”

“Families understand better than anyone how their farms work, and how Bill 6 will impact their lives,” Jean said. “They’ve heard bureaucrats and the minister talk down to them, but all they want is to have their voices heard,” Jean said. “Bulldozing ahead with Bill 6 and making adjustments on the fly is not how we should be legislating changes to the 45,000 farms across the province.”

If passed, the law would take effect on Jan. 1.

Liberal Leader David Swann also mentioned an “abundance of misinformation” was floating around in the Bill 6 discussion, but he blamed the NDP for losing control of the message. He saw the changes coming when the NDP “strangely” cancelled the evening sitting after Question Period Nov. 30, worrying the governing party intended to simply withdraw the bill and continue with the status quo.

“Bill 6 is not a perfect bill,” he said. “I support changes to this legislation, particularly when it comes to creating exemptions for family farms. However, these changes can and should be made on the floor of the house as legislators debate the bill in the next two weeks. This government gave its word to paid farm workers. We expect them to honour that.”

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