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Even some farm leaders admit the Alberta NDP's notorious Bill 6 is an improvement

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Oneil Carlier

The New Democratic Party Government's notorious Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, became the law of Alberta on Jan. 1, 2016, after a protracted temper tantrum by a significant number of farmers, encouraged by right-wing politicians, who strove mightily to scare the bejeebers out of them.

What has happened since, and what does it mean?

Naturally, Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier and Labour Minister Christina Gray, who was appointed to cabinet after the Bill 6 brouhaha, have both worked hard to calm the seething fears of the farm community, with limited success.

But one measurable thing that's happened is that in the first year since the NDP government brought in the controversial farm safety legislation, the number of farmworkers making Workers' Compensation claims has skyrocketed by 134 per cent.

A total of 793 agricultural industry injury claims, including three fatality claims, were accepted by the Alberta Workers Compensation Board in 2016, compared with 339 claims in 2015.

The number of agricultural businesses registered with the WCB -- it's a little misleading to refer to these businesses simply as "farms" since many of them are more like farm-products factories -- has increased a similar amount, by 107 per cent. That is to say, 3,629 agricultural operators with employees who are paid wages are now registered, compared with only 1,756 immediately before Bill 6 was enacted.

The dots are obvious and should be easy for anyone to connect: What this statistic illustrates is that hundreds of Alberta farmworkers who before the NDP was elected didn't have access to workers' compensation were being injured and losing income without compensation.

In other words, what this statistic shows is that Bill 6 was desperately needed, and that the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act courageously passed by the Alberta Legislature on Dec. 10, 2015, by the government of Premier Rachel Notley in the face of huge -- and when it came to its political opponents, hugely dishonest -- opposition was the right thing to do.

Before this sensible and necessary legislation became the law of the land, injured farmworkers were basically abandoned, left to their own resources. Or, if they had family resources, they could try to sue their employers for compensation -- and it's a hard road even for people with money to pursue a legal case.

If the victims of agricultural accidents were impoverished as a result, it fell to taxpayers to support them through an inadequate and capricious welfare system. Which means it fell to us to subsidize agricultural businesses at which worker safety was not a high priority.

Before Bill 6 became the law, agricultural businesses could voluntarily sign up with the WCB, or they could buy private insurance. Of course, as the Calgary Herald pointed out in an unusually balanced story about this development, there's no way to determine how many agricultural operations have bought private insurance.

But as should be obvious to anyone who understands how Workers' Compensation works -- or, at least, how it's supposed to work and used to in Alberta before creeping corporatization took hold at the WCB -- it is far superior to private insurance because it is a no-fault system in which workers give up their right to sue in return for assured compensation if they are injured.

At least in theory, there should be no financial incentive to the WCB system to deny injured workers compensation to which they are entitled. Private insurance, beloved of neoliberal politicians as "choice," does not work this way. Finding ways to deny legitimate claims is standard operating procedure at for-profit insurance corporations, and the cost of premiums encourages employers to press injured employees not to report their injuries.

Now, there can be no question the NDP mishandled the introduction of Bill 6 -- as you might expect of an inexperienced government. They essentially allowed dishonest right-wing politicians to set the narrative for what the legislation meant, and that narrative became one of Big Government, unreasonable bureaucracy and infringing on the rights of independent family farms.

Never mind that this mostly amounted to a huge pile of a well-known agricultural product distributed by male cattle. It was compelling nonsense, taken at face value by many members of the farm community who should have known better, and swallowed hook, line and sinker by lots of city dwellers who know little about the realities of farming.

At least some agricultural leaders now admit this. The story quotes Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, saying the change has been positive and that farmers have found Workers Compensation is "far better than any insurance package that they've had." 

Kudos to reporter James Wood, who has been unfairly pilloried lately for a disgusting headline written by a copy editor for one of his stories, for making the effort to cover an NDP policy fairly.

"A lot of the things were not being claimed that probably should have been claimed before," Jacobson diplomatically told the reporter. By "things," of course, the Enchant-area farmer meant "injuries." The statistics, on their face, validate his observation.

The presumably unexpected benefits of WBC coverage enumerated by Jacobson in Wood's story include immunity from litigation by injured employees and former employees and payment from a general fund for the physical-rehabilitation costs of injured workers.

The story noted that the Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition, an agricultural industry group cobbled together with encouragement from the right-wing opposition to oppose Bill 6, didn't manage to produce a spokesperson to comment on the development.

The group, which claims to aim "to foster a culture of farm safety in Alberta," did send the Herald a written statement that 'the increase in farm injuries through WCB data alone is insufficient to determine farm incident frequency rates." This is certainly true, since government sources indicated to me recently that a significant number of Alberta agricultural businesses have still not complied with the law and signed up with the WCB.

As for the opposition, both Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean and Progressive Conservative leadership frontrunner Jason Kenney have vowed to repeal the legislation if they are elected to lead a government.

Little Bow MLA Dave Schneider, the Wildrose agriculture critic, touts private insurance and claims replacement legislation would likely be drafted -- you know, like the replacement legislation Donald Trump's Republicans will create to replace Obamacare.

Any future conservative Alberta government would also likely try to reimpose the longstanding unconstitutional limitation on union membership by farm workers included in Bill 6, which was at the heart of the fury against the bill.

Despite the hard work by the government to rebuild its burnt bridges to the farm community, the NDP was seriously rattled by the Bill 6 fiasco. The Opposition has exploited this ruthlessly and effectively. Jacobson's comments, at least, suggest that a campaign based in part on outright lies is starting to fray a little around the edges.

But the NDP can no longer afford to sit around naively waiting for the public to get it about the merits of its legislation. It must no longer let opposition groups and politicians dominated by corporate money and agendas set the narrative for sound legislative ideas that won't necessarily just sell themselves.

Above all, as these figures show, it’s time for the NDP to get over their rude welcome to governing and get back to implementing the progressive agenda they were elected to enact.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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