The Government of Alberta recently enacted Bill 6 – Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (Bill 6). Bill 6 amends four pieces of employment-related legislation that will result in Alberta's farms and ranches losing many of their current exemptions from workplace standards and obligations.
Prior to Bill 6, much of Alberta's legislation governing employment standards, labour relations and workplace safety did not apply to farm and ranch workers.
The Employment Standards Code (ESC) establishes Alberta's minimum standards of employment. Before Bill 6, farm and ranch workers were exempt from the ESC's minimum requirements relating to hours of work, overtime, general holidays, vacations, vacation pay, minimum wage and restrictions relating to employment of minors.
The Labour Relations Code (LRC) provides for the right of employees to unionize and governs the establishment of union representation, collective bargaining and many other aspects of the relationship between employers and unionized employees. Prior to Bill 6, the LRC contained a blanket exemption from application to farm and ranch workers.
The Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) provides for mandatory workers' compensation coverage for most industries in Alberta. It is a type of no-fault disability insurance, where employers are responsible for paying a premium, so employees who are injured at work receive compensation for lost income, healthcare and other related costs. Certain industries are exempt from mandatory WCA coverage. The Association of Workers' Compensation Boards of Canada estimates 92% of Alberta's workforce is covered by the WCA, placing it above five other Canadian provinces in terms of labour force coverage. Prior to Bill 6, the WCA excluded categories of farm and ranch workers from mandatory coverage, including those involved in agrology, operation of an apiary, provision of artificial breeding services, ranching and carrying on the business of farming.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHS) establishes minimum workplace safety standards to minimize the occurrence of workplace accidents. Aside from the general obligation to take reasonable precautions to protect employees, the regulations passed under OHS contain many specific responsibilities for employers to ensure their workplaces are safe. OHS also contains extensive reporting requirements and confers broad enforcement powers on OHS officers or inspectors. An officer or inspector who finds that an employer has failed to comply with OHS has broad powers to order the employer to rectify that failure, including "stop-work" orders. Violations of OHS can also result in quasi-criminal prosecution of the employer, including significant fines and/or imprisonment. Before Bill 6, farming and ranching operations were exempt from OHS obligations.
Bill 6 – removal of exemptions
Alberta enacted Bill 6 to ensure "farm and ranch workers in Alberta will have the same basic protections that other workers in the province have received for decades." Bill 6 removes the farm worker exemptions in the ESC, LRC, OHS and WCA, but leaves a limited exemption in OHS to address family farms. Under Bill 6, the following changes will take effect:
- January 1, 2016: Insurance coverage under the WCA will become mandatory for all farm and ranch workers in Alberta, with producers having until April 2016 to register. OHS protections for farm and ranch workers will also come into effect.
- Spring 2016: Amendments to the ESC and LRC will come into effect, and farm and ranch workers will no longer be exempt under either legislation.
- 2017: Technical requirements under OHS will be introduced.
Implications and concerns
As a result of Bill 6, Alberta's farms and ranches will face a significant change in landscape. Farm and ranch workers will be protected under the ESC's requirements relating to hours of work, overtime, holidays, vacations, minimum wage and restrictions relating to employing minors. Many interested parties have expressed the concern that the indiscriminate application of the ESC to farm workers does not take into account the sporadic nature of farming operations. Specifically, it does not allow for the flexibility to work longer days during seeding, harvest and calving seasons. Further, applying the ESC to farm workers would interfere with children assisting their parents on the farm and gaining essential skills.
The amendment to the LRC will give farm and ranch workers the right to unionize, participate in collective bargaining and potentially strike. Many are concerned such rights may significantly interfere with seasonal operations due to the time- and weather-sensitive nature of farming.
Under the changes to OHS, farm and ranch workers can refuse unsafe work, and OHS officials can go on farms to investigate serious injuries and fatalities. Farming and ranching operations must familiarize themselves and ensure compliance with extensive new obligations, the failure of which may result in stop-work orders, significant fines, and/or imprisonment. Many family farms have said they often rely on both immediate and extended family, as well as neighbours and friends to help during the critical periods of seeding, harvesting, calving and weaning, and the financial resources they have available to direct toward administration of OHS rules relating to those helpers are very limited.
Currently, only 1,400 of the roughly 42,000 farms and ranches in Alberta have voluntarily registered for WCA coverage. Under Bill 6, WCA coverage will become mandatory for all farm and ranch workers in Alberta. The premiums a farm or ranch will pay are between $1.70 to $2.97 for every $100 on the payroll. Many family farms are concerned they simply do not have the resources to obtain WCA coverage for family members, neighbours and volunteers who help with their operations.
Amendments to Bill 6
Bill 6 had been widely criticized for failing to take into account the differences in farming and ranching operations, failing to make a clear delineation between larger commercial farms and smaller family farms, and potentially threatening the viability of the family farm.
As a result, on December 9 the provincial government passed amendments to Bill 6 excluding the application of the WCA and OHS to owners of a farm or ranch operation, family members of the owners, and friends and neighbours who volunteer their time on the farm or ranch. Only where non-owners or non-family paid individuals are involved in a farm or ranch operation will the WCA and OHS apply.
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