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Thursday, 30 August 2012 11:08

Officials pressure companies to help change farm-worker legislation

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The battle to have farm workers protected under workplace health and safety regulations heated up last week around National Farmworkers Day.


Along with the NDP and members of the Alberta Federation of Labour teaming up to raise awareness of the lack of protection for farm workers, Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann added his voice to the fight.
He called on Frito Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo., to boycott Alberta potatoes until child labour laws are in place in the province and workers fall under OH&S and workers compensation legislation.
“I want to see rules and regulations applied to agricultural operations — the industrial and commercial agricultural operations,” he says.
He states PepsiCo isn’t following its own code of conduct if it accepts potatoes from Alberta, where farm labourers have no rights.
According to the company’s worldwide code of conduct: “We strive to maintain a safe, secure and healthy workplace and it is against our policy to use forced or child labour. We also strive to follow all applicable employment laws and regulations.”
“I had to get the attention of government after 60 years of discriminating against farm workers in this province,” says Swann about his reasoning behind contacting the snack-food company.
He has also contacted McDonalds and Yum Foods officials, who have similar codes of conduct and use Alberta agricultural products including beans, corn and meat. As of Aug. 24 he had yet to receive a reply from them.
In a letter to agricultural producers Swann wrote after making his call for a boycott, he said “I have no desire to damage our critical agricultural industry. My goal is responsible legislation that ensures, like all other workplaces in Alberta, safe conditions, monitoring and enforcement of standards, and compensation for injuries and death.”
Swann says his goal is to see paid farm workers have the basic rights every other paid worker in Alberta currently enjoys.
“This is about paid farm workers. If you are bringing in off-site workers then you are an employer and you should be required to meet the standards of the day,” says Swann.
In his letter, he added: “Since 2004, my colleagues in the legislature and I, have called on various ministers ... and members of the PC government to change this discriminatory exemption as it applies to paid farm workers, not as it affects the family farm.”
Eric Musekamp  has been fighting for farm workers’ rights for years as the president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta.
“We want PepsiCo/Frito Lay to lead the charge for better labour standards,” he says. “We want to know they will not use unfettered child labour and ... refute the use of it.”
Musekamp has been calling on the provincial government to extend basic worker rights to farm workers for years. He was hopeful that under the leadership of Premier Alison Redford there would be changes coming, but that has yet to take place.
“I have been denied every request I have made of government,” he says, adding provincial officials like to hide behind the excuse of not wanting to hurt the family farm.
“This is not about the family farm. Our efforts are directed at agribusiness,” says Musekamp, adding there would be an exemption for non-paid workers and family members to the fourth-degree of kindred.
“The modern farm worker has transferable skills,” says Musekamp. “We need to legitimize the occupation and move agriculture into the modern century.”
Through a public relations company, PepsiCo made the following statement:
“PepsiCo is very proud of our heritage in Alberta and our longstanding relationships with local potato growers. These growers all have a track record of delivering top quality potatoes and maintaining safe workplaces. We expect our producers to comply with the current laws of the province of Alberta, to adhere to PepsiCo’s Supplier Code of Conduct, and to make safety a priority. We continue to believe that honouring our contractual obligations to our growers, and working with them to reinforce our commitment to worker welfare for all farm workers is the best means for PepsiCo to help promote farm safety in Alberta. Farm workplace safety, and the importance of employing experienced and well trained, mature farm workers will remain a topic of discussion with our growers, and a clear expectation of PepsiCo.”

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Rose Sanchez

Assistant Managing Editor