Alberta farmworkers die. A lot.
Sometimes they are smothered, like Kevan Chandler was back in 2006, when a grain crust let go in a silo he was cleaning near High River. He left behind a wife and kids.
Sometimes they get killed by machinery, like when Yvon Poulin fell into a bailer that had an inoperable safety system in 2004. He was a 17-year-old kid.
And sometimes farmers just plain kill their workers for making mistakes, like when Charles Beauchamp stabbed Terry Rash to death in 1999 for sliding a truck into the ditch near Taber. The killer of a 52-year-old grandfather got only four years in the clink.
Farmworkers also get injured in droves—after all, farming is one of Canada’s three most dangerous occupations. But Alberta’s government has no good data on farmworker injuries because injury data is derived from workers’ compensation claim statistics and Alberta farmers aren’t required to carry workers’ compensation insurance for their workers.
Alberta also excludes farmworkers from the ambit of occupational health and safety legislation. This means farmworkers have no right to know if they are working with carcinogenic pesticides. And farmworkers who refuse unsafe work can be summarily fired. And, if a farmworker gets killed, there is no investigation.
Alberta also has no child labour laws on farms. So 10-year-olds can drive a combine or weed fields all day long. And farmworkers can’t unionize. Basically, farm animals have more rights than Alberta farmworkers.
According to Justice Peter Barley—who undertook a 2008 judicial inquiry into Chandler’s death—“(n)o logical explanation was given as to why paid employees on a farm are not covered by the same workplace legislation as non-farm workers.”
The answer is money. It is expensive for farmers to pay decent wages, provide safety gear and carry injury insurance. The Tories—needing rural votes—were never prepared to compel farmers to provide bathrooms or dust masks or overtime pay.
Premier Rachel Notley has long been critical of the regulatory exclusion of farmworkers. In 2011, she told then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk that “Other provinces have concluded coverage for farm workers is necessary, and Alberta’s continued refusal is shameful.”
The key question is whether the NDs will do anything about the plight of farmworkers now that they have formed the government?
The early signs have not been encouraging. Newly minted ND Minister of Agriculture Oneil Carlier told the Western Producer that changes to farm unionization policy and labour standards are “not a focus for us at this time.” Instead of helping farmworkers, he indicated the NDs will focus on helping their employers with market access and transportation.
Rectifying decades of government inaction on farmworker rights simply must be a priority.
Inaction means farmworkers will continue to be routinely maimed and killed at work.
Inaction means the grieving families of farmworkers will continue to live in poverty.
Inaction means kids being exposed to chemicals that can give them cancer.
Honest to God, it’s time to act, Rachel.
Bob Barnetson is associate professor of Labour Relations in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University. His research and publications focus on the political economy of employment in Alberta, paying particular attention to workplace injuries as well as child, farm, and migrant workers.