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The only sector where you can't have a union is the only one with no health and safety rules? Explain, please…

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Alison Redford

LETHBRIDGE, Alberta

Literally everybody – and that includes Alberta Premier Alison Redford – knows that permitting an industry to “voluntarily” self-regulate the health and safety of its own workers amounts to a load of a very common agricultural product frequently spread on the ground as fertilizer.

This includes, by the way, every one of those well-greased lobbyists and earnest spokespeople for Alberta’s agricultural industry who presumably subjected Ms. Redford to the full court press to forget about her impetuous promise to cover farm workers under Alberta’s health and safety legislation during last fall’s Conservative leadership campaign.

As was no doubt quickly brought to Ms. Redford’s attention upon taking the oath of office, Conservative premiers just don’t do that sort of thing in Alberta – even when the countryside is seriously contemplating voting for the loony-right Wildrose Party. Maybe especially when the countryside is seriously contemplating voting for the loony-right Wildrose Party!

So, am I calling these people liars? You bet I am!

They know as you know and I know and Ms. Redford knows that not including agricultural workers under the province’s health and safety laws costs lives now and will cost more lives in the future. They also know the principal reason they don’t want to have to comply with this reasonable kind of regulation is because now and then it might shave a few dollars off their bottom line.

Don’t ever let someone talk snottily about how life’s cheap in some other part of the world. It can be pretty cheap in Alberta too. (And it’s cheaper, take note, here than in any other part of Canada, because everywhere else in Canada, farm workers do come under health and safety legislation.)

Notwithstanding her broken promise, by the way, I’m not accusing Ms. Redford of lying. She’s merely scrambling to avoid having to lie about the topic. Earlier this week, according to the Calgary Herald, the premier’s media spokesthingies were referring reporters’ questions to members of her cabinet. Her agriculture minister and her minister responsible for health and safety law, meanwhile, refused to be interviewed about it.

This topic is in the news because a report of something called the Farm Safety Advisory Council, which was set up by Ms. Redford’s predecessor, Farmer Ed Stelmach, recommends that unlike every other civilized jurisdiction, Alberta farm workers continue to be excluded from the protection of health and safety law.

This being Alberta, they’re also excluded from laws governing hours of work, overtime pay, statutory holidays, vacation pay, the right to refuse unsafe work, compensation if they’re injured on the job or even the right to be told if they work they’re being instructed to do is dangerous!

Ms. Redford’s ministers have been studying this and studying it and studying it – presumably while they try to come up with a way to pass off what they plan to do as concern for farm worker safety. Then some anonymous and inconsiderate person leaked the scheme to the media, whereupon reporters lobbed a few questions for the premier and her ministers to evade answering.

Now, the recommendation of the Farm Safety Advisory Council comes as no surprise, as Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan pointed out in a letter to the premier, because the advisory council is packed with representatives of agricultural corporations.

The advisory council, by the way, thinks the workers should be “educated” about safety. That’s a good one, considering the advantage bosses have anywhere – even if you happen to speak English and know a good lawyer or two. Temporary foreign workers, frightened, far from home and unable to speak the local lingo? Good luck to them!

One advantage of this approach from the employer’s perspective, of course, is that if something does go terribly wrong, God forbid, they can blame the dead or injured worker.

It’s also important to remember, while we’re talking about “farm workers,” that Alberta doesn’t just use that term to describe the hired hand on a run-down family farm – which I’m sure is the image they’d like you to think of when you hear the expression – but also for employees of giant industrial operations run by multinational corporations, including hog farms, massive feedlots and hay processing factories that ship stuff overseas.

In other words, in many cases here in Alberta, it’s a significant class of industrial workers that has been excluded from the right to a safe and healthy workplace by this lamentable situation.

Meanwhile, according to the director of the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, a government funded operation at the University of Alberta, the Advisory Council had no interest in his group’s advice, which was to include the farm workers under the health and safety umbrella.

“Our input was based on the science but it wasn’t listened to,” epidemiologist Don Voaklander, the U of A Centre’s director, told the Herald. He added: “These corporate farms, large feedlots and custom haying operations are no different than businesses that are drilling for oil or fixing your car. The agrarian myth of the rugged family farm just doesn’t apply.”

Think about this sort of thing when you hear those kindly souls from the anti-union Merit Contractors, the extreme-right Tax Exempt Fraser Institute for Market Fundamentalist Propaganda (TEFIMFP) and the further reaches of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s backbenches explaining that we don’t need unions any more because we have all this great health and safety legislation, labour laws and the like.

Well, you may wonder, why don’t Alberta’s farm workers just join a union and start the long march to better labour conditions?

That would be the ticket, eh? Just one thing about that plan, though: it’s also illegal in Alberta for “farm workers” to be represented by a union!

Sure, the law’s unconstitutional, but someone who had suffered because of it would have to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.

So think about this the next time you’re serenaded about the need for “worker choice” and the “right to work” – meaning laws to make unions ineffective or outright illegal – by one of these “friends of the working person.”

If not having unions is so great because we already have such wonderful safety laws, labor laws and rules against children working in industrial plants, how come the only sector without this protection just happens to be the only sector where you’re not allowed to join a union? Just wondering.

In the meantime, let’s call a spade an agricultural implement. The fact Alberta farm workers are still not covered by basic health and safety law, and the fact Premier Redford has broken her promise to make sure they are protected, is a disgrace.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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