In a recent report from the Parkland Institute, author Bob Barnetson talks about the continuing lack of workers’ compensation for farm workers and the Alberta government’s refusal to include them in the provincial compensation system.
“There’s no good reason to exclude them. It appears to be a political quid pro quo,” Barnetson said in an interview.
“Farmers don’t want to pay workers’ compensation premiums and the conservative government doesn’t want to (anger) the farmers because they need their political support. So we have this ongoing exclusion.”
Barnetson, who is an associate professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, said the exclusion goes back to 1918 when farmers told the provincial government that they couldn’t afford workers’ compensation premiums.
Given that farms were much smaller back then, the affordability of paying the premiums was likely a real issue that may have led to difficulties keeping the operation afloat. But Barnetson said the farms nowadays that can actually afford to hire workers are the largest ones in the province.
He explained that these are usually farms with thousands of acres, thousands of head of cattle or hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual receipts.
“And this comes down to about 60 or 70 bucks a month for an average farm worker to get that coverage,” he said. “So the whole notion that farmers can’t afford workers’ compensation has basically been disproven.”
In an article published on the Edmonton Journal’s website on Jan. 15, Labour Minister Ric McIver said the government has no intentions of giving farm workers mandatory WCB coverage.
“What Minister Rick McIver said last week was that if farm workers didn’t like it, they could go get other jobs. Which is a pretty unsympathetic thing to say about injured farmers and the survivors of farm deaths,” said Barnetson.
“That means widows and kids that have no support because the government won’t force farmers to take out mandatory coverage on their farm workers.”
“It’s a traditional system that we haven’t chosen to change,” McIver stated in the Edmonton Journal article, saying Alberta rather work to educate farmers through the FarmSafe plan. “My understanding is our record is pretty good.”
At present, the workers just have to accept the risks and often rely on family for financial support if they get injured and can’t work. They depend on the public health-care system for treatment and all of this allows the employers to “externalize” the costs of the injuries onto the employees and tax-paying public.
If a farm worker dies, however, the only option that family has is to sue the farmer, which Barnetson explains is expensive, time consuming and “a bit of a crap shoot”.
The Edmonton Journal article referenced was titled, “Report urges injury, death coverage for farm workers.” Barnetson’s report, A Dirty Business: The Exclusion of Alberta Farm Workers From Injury Compensation, can be read at parklandinstitute.ca.