The Alberta government’s failure to post its annual report of farm work-related fatalities has brought allegations from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) that the province is deliberately trying to move the issue to the back burner.
However, Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Stuart Elson says the statistics will be posted “shortly,” once the ministry finishes its review of how the statistics are reported.
“Some of the information we provided, it was providing a little bit too much detail in terms of identifying victims and putting some additional hardship on the families,” says Elson. He says 16 people died while working on Alberta farms in 2011; down from the 22 reported in 2010 but about average for the past decade.
AFL secretary-treasurer Nancy Furlong says she is skeptical about Elson’s answer, but says the issue of government inaction on farm worker issues is inexcusable.
The AFL is engaged in a long-term campaign to get farm workers covered by Occupational Health and Safety legislation. Alberta is the only Canadian province that excludes farm workers from labour laws, including rules governing working hours and conditions, age limits, pay and the right to refuse unsafe work.
Last year the AFL, NDP, Liberals, Farmworkers Union of Alberta and United Food and Commercial Workers Canada sent letters to then Agriculture minister Thomas Lukaszuk calling for legislative changes. The government refused, and instead created educational farm safety programs and created a 15-member advisory panel to study the implications of legislative changes. The AFL points out that 11 of the 15 members are agriculture employers, and only one is a worker representative.
On August 21, Liberal MLA David Swann weighed in, calling on major corporations like McDonald’s and PepsiCo (owner of Frito Lay) to boycott Alberta-grown potatoes until Occupational Health and Safety, Workers’ Compensation Board and child labour laws are expanded to cover agriculture employees.
The provincial government has long held that farm work is fundamentally different from other forms of labour because it traditionally relies on the unpaid labour of family members.
“We just want to make sure that we’re bringing forth practical solutions to enhance farming but also respect the rural way of life and the needs of the family farm,” explains Elson.
Furlong says that is illogical and ignores the majority of employees in the agriculture industry that work for large-scale operations.
“This is a historical thing, [it] was left over from before we had agribusiness, really, and most of this province was covered over with small farms,” says Furlong. “We’re going to continue to lobby the government and we’re going to continue to hopefully educate the public to say ‘this is astounding and outrageous.’”
The AFL represents over 150,000 Alberta workers. It states three-quarters of Alberta farms report incomes over $250,000, and that there are approximately 12,000 “farm workers” in the province. In 2005 the federation declared August 20 as “Farm Workers Day.”