EDMONTON — Alberta has introduced amendments to clarify that its contentious farm safety bill won't kill the family farm — but opponents say the process is now so muddled the bill should be scrapped.
The amendments, introduced Monday, state that workers' compensation benefits and occupational health and safety rules will only apply on farms that have paid workers.
Farms that are run by families will be exempt, even ones where kin are paid to do work.
That's the opposite of what the government promised three weeks ago when it introduced Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. At that time, the government said farm volunteers and children would be subject to occupational health and safety safety rules.
"This was our intent all along.''
Jobs Minister Lori Sigurdson said the original information was wrong and that the amendments reflect the government's long-standing policy position.
"This was our intent all along,'' said Sigurdson, adding there was miscommunication on the issue.
Bill 6 has become the focus of a widespread backlash by farmers.
In the last two weeks, they have held rallies, driven protest convoys of farm equipment and jammed government information meetings, where ministers have been shouted at and criticized.
Opposition parties have taken up the farmers' fight in the legislature. They say there needs to be more time for consultation with people affected by the bill, which touches on a range of issues.
The Wildrose party has begun holding its own public consultation sessions.
Wildrose member Jason Nixon said even with the changes "this bill still creates confusion, frustration and anger amongst Alberta's farming community. Their voices have not been properly heard.''
Progressive Conservative House Leader Richard Starke said he believes the government did initially want to bring family farms under health and safety rules.
"That was the way they wanted to go. And when this furor erupted, they started backtracking in a huge way and saying, 'OK, what do we have to pull out of this (bill) to maybe salvage the situation?''' said Starke.
If passed, the bill will give farm workers the right to workers' compensation benefits if hurt on the job, along with the right to refuse unsafe work, starting Jan. 1.
Specific rules and exemptions on occupational health and safety rules are to be drawn up in the months that follow in consultation with farmers to reflect the unique needs of the industry.
The bill also introduces reforms to employment standards and labour relations, with details to be hashed out in the coming year.
Safety and security
Notley, speaking to the bill last week, stressed the legislation is about bringing safety and security to farm workers.
However, Sigurdson said that under the amendments, occupational health and safety can investigate if a paid worker is killed driving a piece of farm equipment, but now won't be allowed to if a child is killed driving that same piece of equipment on a family farm.
Still, said Sigurdson, the bill is "a step forward.''
The bill is moving slowly through the legislature as many opposition members take the opportunity to speak to it.
Government house leader Brian Mason has said the opposition has moved beyond reasoned debate and is now just trying to eat up time on the legislative clock to keep the bill from passing.
On Monday, unions in the province lent their support to Bill 6, saying there will be fewer farm deaths if workers have workplace rights.
"It is really about removing the exemptions in law that have denied Alberta's 50,000 agricultural workers the same kind of basic rights and freedoms in the workplace that other Albertans take for granted every day,'' said Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
The 112 people who have died in workplace incidents on Alberta farms since 2009 were commemorated at the news conference.
— with files from CTV Edmonton
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