Photo: Jim Flannery
On Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015, I attended the provincial government’s Lethbridge Town Hall stop to discuss Bill 6, the omnibus bill they tabled in mid-November announcing that farms and ranches in Alberta would, at long last, be brought under the umbrella of Occupational Health and Safety and Worker’s Compensation, as well as making changes to labour and employment regulations for those same businesses.
When the bill was introduced the agriculture industry in Alberta immediately responded by completely losing their collective shit about a bill which should have been enacted a decade ago if the previous ruling party, the Conservatives, had had any balls.
Here are a few observations on my part. First, about the NDP and the MLAs in attendance:
When the NDP swept to power in the spring, I predicted that the farming/ranching community was going to be brought under OHS sooner rather than later because, a)the NDP were the only party to even mention OHS in their platform, and b) party leader Rachel Notley has a long history of advocacy with OHS and WCB in Alberta and BC prior to her entering the political world. I was expecting that this could happen some time in 2016 or 2017 with a very gradual implementation process, but the bill was tabled only a few weeks before the OHS and WCB elements come into effect (Jan. 1, 2016). So I was not surprised when Bill 6 was brought forward, but I was shocked to find out the NDP was only giving the industry six weeks warning of the coming changes.
It was therefore not at all surprising to see the swift and angry uprising in protest of this bill. In my opinion, this was a stupid move on the part of the new government—they acted too quickly, with only half of a plan, to make changes to a community that, by and large, didn’t vote for them. You couldn’t script a better way to further alienate an entire industry that already didn’t like you.
The optics of the bill’s introduction were made even more ugly when Premier Notley—who was almost certainly the driving force behind the bill—immediately got on a plane and took off to Paris for the big international climate change talks, making her unavailable to face the music at home.
To their credit, MLAs Lori Sigurdson and Oneil Carlier stood up on the podium for the duration of the meeting and fielded questions from the hostile audience, as they have done in the previous town hall meetings that have been running daily around the province. To their discredit, they’ve backtracked on a couple points from the first announcement of the bill, making them look even less credible, and they don’t have good answers to some of the more reasonable and well-thought-out questions that were raised.
I didn’t even attempt to get into the giant post-Q & A scrum/angry mob around Sigurdson and Carlier, but did have a chance to talk briefly with our local MLA, Maria Fitzpatrick. I thanked her for being there in front of that unfriendly crowd and she answered that she doesn’t take it personally and that she would, of course, be in attendance at a meeting held in her constituency. Still, kudos for showing up; less worthy politicians might not have.
On the farming and ranching side, there were a number of interesting points:
Firstly—and not at all subtly—several attendees were quite literally there brandishing pitchforks (with “Kill Bill 6” signs stuck on them, but still). If only a few people had shown up with torches, we could have had a good ol’ fashioned Frankenstein’s monster burnin’!
One of the loudest rounds of applause in the entire event happened after someone near the front of the audience shouted out “Heil Hitler!” Because imposing the same safety measures on farms and ranches that every other industry in Alberta already has is exactly the same as Nazi fascism.
There seems to be a prevailing concern that the socialist NDP are trying to hide their secret agenda behind a smokescreen of safety. What they’re really trying to do, according to some in the crowd, is make the entire industry unionize and start striking. According to these folks, the part of Bill 6 giving farm and ranch employees the right to unionize has nothing to do with the recent Canadian Supreme Court ruling giving all Canadian workers the right to unionize and to strike, and everything to do with shutting down capitalism.
The paranoia surrounding this particular element of Bill 6 seems to be deeply held and strong. It seems to me that if farm and ranch workers were the sort of people who were prone to striking, they might have been pushing for this for awhile now, which I’m not seeing or hearing.
A legitimate point that was brought up was that about 50 percent of all farm and ranch workers are already being provided insurance coverage by their employers, insurance coverage that is typically 24/7, not just workplace, and therefore quite a bit more valuable than WCB to the workers. The imposition of WCB, it was argued, would result in many employers dropping the superior coverage since they can’t afford to pay for both.
Now I happen to have worked for companies that paid WCB premiums and provided secondary coverage through Blue Cross or some similar insurance company, so I know this can be reconciled. But the audience was very much locked into a black-or-white, all-or-nothing mode of thinking (including the first person to the mic insisting that no farmer or rancher would accept any part of Bill 6 regardless of any proposed changes, so the government needed to just drop the whole damn thing).
But something the audience failed to key on (which came to my attention) was that if half of all farm and ranch workers are currently covered, that also means half of that group are not covered, which means their employers clearly need to be made to do the right thing, something this bill addresses.
Likewise, someone asked why it was that farmers are being persecuted for all the deaths in their industry when more people are killed on Alberta roads every year than have died on farms in the last decade.
My internal response was twofold: 1) Alberta farms and ranches kill more people per year than any other industry in the province. This is completely unacceptable, and the driving force behind Bill 6. 2) Did this guy seriously just dare a government that likes more government intervention to do something meaningful about dangerous driving in this province? I honestly don’t think farmers or ranchers would like that much at all, since it would almost certainly involve significantly tightening up the testing standards for obtaining a license to the point where many people who currently depend on their ability to drive would have their license taken away, including farmers and ranchers (especially farmers and ranchers?).
One fellow who got to the mic observed that only nine percent of the workplace fatalities on farms and ranches in the last 20 years were employees. He then went on to note that the NDP have backed down on their plan to include families in Bill 6 and asked if that means the NDP don’t care about families. Seriously? Again, do you understand that this government’s answer to such questions is likely to be to reverse their position yet again and say, “You’re absolutely right. If you perform work on a farm or ranch, you will be subject to OHS, regardless of whether you’re an employee or a family member.” This would, after all, follow the same model all the other western provinces have been successfully using for years, where there is no distinction made between employees and families.
One person who criticized the WCB requirement in the bill complained that the premiums were prohibitively high. When one of the MLA aides stepped up and pointed out that the premiums set out for the industry for 2016 range from $1.95-$2.70 per $100 insurable earnings (lower than many construction industry premiums), the commentor responded that he already had WCB for his farm and that he had been paying closer to $7 because of poor performance surcharges and that it took him years to bring it down to around $4. Dude, you are exactly who this legislation is aimed at! People who are injuring their staff at a rate 200 percent higher than the industry standard are the problem! Stop putting people in the hospital and your rates will come down. And don’t tell me it can’t be done because, by your own admission, it can be.
Here’s my bottom line: As I mentioned above, this should have been enacted years ago. Sadly, the Conservatives valued rural votes over rural lives, resulting in an industry that got used to being allowed to do what they wanted, how they wanted, with no regard for the human cost. The NDP are not going to dismiss this bill, so industry can either be part of the process and help tailor the loose ends more to their liking or they can continue to have their little tantrum and wind up being handed a piece of legislation they’ll have to follow anyway.
To be fair, the farmers I’ve spoken to directly seem far more moderate in their response to Bill 6 and seem prepared to get themselves properly set up. From what I’ve heard, the moderates are also the majority. But these are also farmers who are, as far as I can see, already doing things the right way. It’s the farms who want to retain the right to injure or kill people without consequence who are the problem.