The Alberta government will exempt the province's family farms from its most powerful tool for agricultural safety and bar workplace inspectors from looking into the work-related deaths of children and family members on farms.
Premier Rachel Notley's government says it never intended for its far-reaching farm safety law and occupational health rules to cover all family farms – as a document released to the public in November by the Alberta Workers' Compensation Board had said it would. The document said everyone, including children, would be covered by new rules requiring farmers to follow occupational health and safety laws and pay into the provincial workers' compensation fund.
The government backtracked and said that only paid workers would be covered. Ms. Notley has called the board's statement a "miscommunication."
And on Monday, Ms. Notley's Labour Minister announced changes that would exclude family farms without paid workers from the new law and prevent inspectors from investigating farm deaths that involve family members, including children. "This was our intent all along," Lori Sigurdson said.
The new rules, which still apply to Alberta's 42,227 family-owned farms when paid workers are on site, set off a furor among farmers, thousands of whom have converged on the provincial legislature to demand that the bill be put on ice. Despite the government's amendments, farmers continue to protest. The proposed legislation has led to packed conference rooms over the past few weeks with showdowns between farmers and ministers. Convoys of farmers have taken to the province's highways in a show of displeasure, while at rallies across Alberta, livestock has been trotted out along with pitchforks.
Bill 6 would extend injury compensation and occupational health and safety rules to paid farm workers. Alberta has nearly 800 corporate farms and is the only province that does not extend safety rules and coverage to farm workers. The bill would also allow farm workers to unionize and refuse dangerous work, and give authorities the right to investigate farm accidents.
The Workers' Compensation Board's early announcement to farms reads, "you must cover any unpaid workers, including family members and children, performing work on your farm." The information has led to an emotional debate, with farmers warning their children would have to pay union dues and put on hard hats and reflective vests to milk cows at dawn. Even members of the province's Hutterite community have joined protests.
"Proponents of Bill 6 likely haven't had to go out, after a full day of work, and help a mama cow safely deliver her calf in the middle of a snowy, cold night. They haven't had to run the tractor for 20 hours straight to get the crop in because the forecast is calling for rain," George Canyon, a Juno Award-winning country singer, wrote in response to what he called an "imprudent" piece of legislation.
Like some of the legislation written by Alberta governments, the five pages that make up Bill 6 contain almost no plain language. The proposed law is largely a long series of amendments and repeals to other pieces of legislation. Part of the problem, the Premier said, was that the bill did not clearly state that family farms without paid workers would be exempt.
"It was a mistake that our intentions and these limitations were not included in the text of the bill," Ms. Notley said last week. "They were always intended to be introduced in regulation. Between what was explicitly stated, and what was intended, fear and miscommunication has filled the gap. I take responsibility for that."
However, with the Premier facing the first major challenge to her government's legislative agenda and with thousands of farmers and most of the provincial opposition calling for the bill to be cancelled, Ms. Notley has stood firm. On Tuesday, her party moved to limit debate. A former WCB injury claims lawyer, she has stated the bill is "a little bit personal."
"I will never be able to accept that injuries and deaths caused by workplace accidents are simply a fact of life," she said. The NDP has vowed to pass the legislation before Christmas.
According to the Alberta government, the province had 355 agriculture-related deaths between 1990 and 2009, averaging 18 per year. The province also states that for each death, 25 more workers are severely injured.
In October, three sisters were killed in central Alberta when they were smothered by canola seed. The next month, a 10-year-old boy died while driving a forklift on his family farm.