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Wednesday, 05 September 2012 15:38

An open letter to Alta. Agricultural producers

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In 2004, after first being elected to the Alberta Legislature, I was shocked to learn that agriculture was the only industry exempt from occupational health and safety laws, mandatory workers compensation, and child labour standards.

My recent call for a boycott of Alberta potatoes reflects a degree of shame as a citizen of this great province and the frustration that we have a government so dominated by entrenched thinking. Our government not only places our cherished food producers at risk of lawsuits for unsafe workplaces and criminal prosecution under Bill C-45 (Westray Mine Bill), but endangers the lives of those who labour in paid positions in commercial operations.
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. I believe this is part of my job as an elected representative — first, to inform people about unsatisfactory conditions, and then to press the government to act.
The family farms of early Alberta have increasingly been replaced by large industrial operations, which use paid farm workers to produce the quality goods that Alberta is famous for, and, as a result, is highly profitable for the owners.
Albertans want to know that their food is not being produced at the expense of health and safety, and that workers are fairly compensated for injury or death.
That is not the standard today in Alberta.
Since 2004, my colleagues in the legislature and I, have called on various ministers (Agriculture, Health, Children and Families) 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.
In comparison to the standards and protection enjoyed in other Canadian provinces, and even in the U.S, Alberta stands out like a sore thumb, particularly in the absence of child labour standards.
When informed of this inequity, government ministers and members have in many cases expressed surprise and referred these concerns to various committees to report back.
Knowing that children continue to work in commercial agriculture operations, this government has made no progress in addressing child labour standards and have made measly attempts to argue for more safety training programs. They have watched the death and injury statistics remain the same over the past two decades.
In fact, according to this month’s report from Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, the death rate for children on farms is increasing.  This must be investigated further.
Judge Barley, in reviewing the death of farm worker Kevin Chandler in 2006, also indicated that more protection was needed and called for legislation, including OHS and child labour standards. Yet, no legislation is in sight. This is despite Alberta having a premier who has talked for years about human rights, and ministers who trumpet their commitment to children, health and safety, and to equality in working conditions for all paid employees.
I will continue to press for equal treatment of paid farm workers in Alberta and am still hopeful that this PC government will bring in legislation to protect both owners and paid farm workers, especially children. It’s in keeping with our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian Constitution and the Alberta Human Rights Act.
I am also hopeful that responsible agricultural groups, including potato farmers, dairy, chicken, pig and cattle producers, will help bring Alberta’s labour standards into the 21st century and make Albertans proud of our products, our people, and our place in the world.
Dr. David Swann, MLA Calgary-Mountain View, Alberta Liberal Critic for Health and Human Resources

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Ryan Dahlman

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