I’ve been asked a lot recently to comment on the NDP Alberta goverment’s omnibus Bill 6 which is the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. I’ve had mixed feelings about publicly displaying my opinions on the bill, because I have a general rule about not discussing politics on my platforms — it just brings too much controversy and hate, which I don’t need in my life. If you browse the #bill6 hashtag on Twitter, you’ll get an exact taste of why I’ve been hesitant to share my thoughts. Not only that, but there really isn’t a lot of black and white information on Bill 6 and exactly how it will affect family farms like ours, and I do not like to publicly form opinions until I have as much information and facts as possible. However, I figured it would be safe to share my thoughts on how I foresee this bill potentially affecting our family farm.
Is There Enough Farm Safety Enforced on Alberta Farms?
Farm safety, and more of it, is not a bad thing in my opinion and I don’t think anyone is disputing that fact. I know farm safety is of the utmost importance to us, and I believe it’s safe to say it is for the majority — if not all — farms. However, having the government swoop in with very rushed and unclear legislation, to me, is not the answer. I believe the Wildrose Party, the official opposition, says it best in their open letter:
If we truly want to improve farm safety, improved education is the most effective path forward, more awareness, better training materials, and recognition of the unique aspects of differing agriculture sectors. It seems this is not a message the NDP government is willing to hear. Unless something changes, perhaps the most transformational rural legislation in a generation will come into force just 45 days after first being made public, and impact over 40,000 farms across the province.
On our farm we have done things to enhance safety such as high ladders on our grain bins and augers with movers on them so our farmers don’t have to push them on ice and potentially fall, which can be very dangerous. We do our very best to instill the rules to the kids of not going on or in any machinery without supervision and not leaving the farmhouse yard and exploring the farmyard without permission.
Even though we have these rules and reiterate them over and over to the kids, rules have the potential to be broken unless they are all supervised 100% of the time, which as parents (of any child!) I think we can all attest, is virtually impossible. I want to give our kids the opportunities to learn responsibility on their own and how to critically think and make good decisions. I certainly don’t abandon the children during our busiest and most dangerous times on the farm to let them explore and learn on their own. I know them best and exercise my judgment on how much I can trust them at their ages. Why is this any different, to our government, than the potential dangers urban children face being raised in busy cities with all the hazards there? A family farm is a lifestyle, it’s not just a career or a job or a work site.
Farming is Not Like Other Industries
I’ve been a Registered Nurse for 10.5 years and I’m very familiar with our labour laws and how our union works to ensure these laws are fair and just for nurses. Applying the same (or similar) regulations, for example, that a nurse adheres to compared to a farmer, is laughable. According to Lori Sigurdson, Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, there will be exemptions to acknowledge the uniqueness of the farming and ranching sector, but those are not accurately documented as part of the bill at the moment, so emotions are (rightfully so) running high.
Alberta’s farm and ranch industry is currently exempt from most of the minimum standards in employment standards legislation including those relating to: hours of work, overtime and overtime pay, holidays and general holiday pay, vacations and vacation pay, restrictions on employment of children and minimum wage. Government will consult with the farm and ranch industry to determine whether any special provisions for this industry should be considered. – Alberta Government
I truly hope the last sentence, emphasis mine, rings true. I have heard that this isn’t the case, that when the government has met with producer groups and commissions, it is more telling vs. consulting, so I hope this isn’t true. During the busy times on our grain farm for seeding the crops in the spring and then harvesting those crops in the fall…one cannot limit those to 8 hour days, 40 days a week and expect a farm (using our farm as my example) to afford to pay overtime hours for all employees working an excess of 40 hours per week. I’d say on average my husband works 15 hour days (at least) 6 days a week during harvest which equates to 90 hours per week.
However, there are many perks of being a grain farmer on our family farm that make up for those “overtime” hours during our busy seasons; he doesn’t work these hours all the time and if he felt it was unjust and against his rights, he wouldn’t work on the farm. This is something an urban NDP politician simply, and rightfully so, cannot comprehend — but then I feel it is their civic duty to reach out and talk to farmers and ranchers to understand how agriculture is unlike any other industry before such significant legislation is passed.
No More “Helping Thy Neighbour”?
One of the proposed regulations under Bill 6 that concerns me the most is the inability for any non-farm employee or volunteer to help out during the busy season. This year whenever I was available I went out and ran the grain cart during harvest, but I’m not an employee of the farm, so under proposed mandatory WCB regulations, I wouldn’t be able to help my own family out anymore unless they paid into WCB for me, or anyone else wanting to help out. In the past my dad has come out to the farm to help truck and so has my brother-in-law’s dad and various friends and neighbours. One of the most special things about our industry is the community and fellowship that it entails. If a neighbour needs help finishing harvest, no questions asked most any farmer in our rural community would be there to help out. Now, according to what the government is introducing:
Under the proposed legislation, the OHS Act and regulations would apply when an employer engages the services of a worker, regardless of whether or not the worker is paid (for example, neighbours who volunteer their help) and regardless of the worker’s age. – Alberta Government (emphasis mine)
How Will Our Kids Fall in Love With Farming?
We are raising the 5th generation on our family farm and involving our children in most aspects of farm life is very important to us. It would break my heart if legislation prevented family combine rides every fall during harvest time. If the boys couldn’t ride along to plow snow with their daddy in the tractor to clear out the farmyard. If my husband couldn’t teach our children how we raise food for the world from every aspect of production; such as showing our 3 year old son how wheat is harvested with a combine, emptied into a truck and then augered into a grain bin for storage until it is time to haul it to the elevator.
If not exposed to farm life, how are they supposed to foster a passion for agriculture? We want all of the children in our family to be safe, but if they are not allowed to work on the farm and be exposed to work on the farm until they are 12, 16, 18 — or whatever the determinate age may be — they are going to miss out on years and years learning life skills on the farm. Trying to learn everything you need to learn to start working on the family farm is potentially more dangerous at a later age, in my opinion. How many kids are going to want to suddenly start farming as a teenager, potentially never having been exposed to it as a kid? Not likely very many, we have the possibility of losing our farm kids to jobs and life in the city and the, worst case scenario, death of the family farm.
Quite frankly I’m lost trying to decipher the language used in the PDF file of Bill 6 that’s available to us. We are at the mercy of an NDP government that virtually no farmers or ranchers voted for, that have shown through theses proceedings of Bill 6 that they know little to nothing about the agriculture industry and the uniqueness of life on the family farm. Some non-farming folks are calling farmers whiners, not having a grasp on how this bill will affect our entire life, not just our “work” life. I wish more money and energy was put into wonderful programs like Ag for Life to get more rural and farm safety programs available to us, instead of the potential damage Bill 6 could cause family farms.
I have outlined here some of the worst case scenarios for our farm that I’ve been able to think of if Bill 6 passes and the agriculture industry is not involved and consulted with. There is a lot of assumptions, hearsay and fear-spreading going on right now with so many questions up in the air, I hope we get a much more concise layout of how Bill 6 will affect our farm before and if it is passed.
Here’s a few things you can do and further information: