Farm employees great labour union in Alberta will have the option to unionize once new provincial government labor legislation is passed.
Labour minister Christina Gray announced amendments May 24 to the labor relations code and the employment standards code, dubbed the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.
The changes reach into all employment sectors in the province and some will affect non-family paid workers on farms and ranches.
Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier said the right to unionize, such as the right to strike, is available to other farm workers in Canada and the new legislation will bring Alberta into line with other states.
“We see this as essentially a right that is enjoyed by employees, every employee, across Alberta … a right that is held by each farm worker across Canada,” he said. “I think it’s really about time that Alberta farm workers had that right as well.”
Amendments to the two codes were the topic of round-table working groups established by the government after it introduced the controversial Bill 6, which later became the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.
Members of this group tasked with amendments to the labor code agreed to disagree on allowing farm workers to unionize, noting anxieties about animal care and the vital timing of various farming operations.
The new legislation thus has included Public Emergency Tribunal provisions, to be used “when there’s a risk of imminent and irreversible harm to crops and/or livestock welfare in primary agriculture.”
Carlier said the tribunal would be able to act quickly if a strike or other work stoppage occurs and cause injuries at critical times, such as seeding, crop or calving.
Kent Erickson, the co-chair of the Ag Coalition of farm groups formed in response to Bill 6, said the possibility of labor disruption is a worry.
“The biggest concern that actually came out from the ag industry was the way that would affect livestock care and harvest care when you are having living plants and animals that will need to be tended to and the possibility of delay,” he said.
“These are the kinds of things that we must look at. It’s a large piece of legislation.”
Erickson said May 25 that the coalition has had little opportunity to get feedback from its farmer members since most are still seeding the 2017 harvest.
A closer look at the chapter and verse is planned in coming days.
“I believe that the wording is a little bit different in this legislation than what we had expected,” he explained.
“For nearly all producers, unionization is not a real-life issue that is going to happen because we have maybe a couple of employees. But at the same time, after you let that part come into your business … I think we stay strong in the fact that we really believe in healthy relationships.”
AG coalition members on the labour working group also expressed the fear that an option for farm workers to unionize would change the culture of their farm.
Carlier said he does not think that will be the case.
“I grew up on a farm myself in Saskatchewan where workers had the right … to join unions for decades and I don’t see a culture of farming much different in Saskatchewan than it’s in Alberta,” he said.
“I think for a large part it is because farmers and ranchers out there respect their workers, so workers, by and large, I think they welcome the right to join unions if they so choose and it’s always their choice. But they may feel in the long run that there is no need because they’re being treated fairly.”
Carlier said the Labour Relations Board will include a representative with a fantastic understanding of agriculture. This was also a request of the agriculture members in the class.
As for changes to the Employment Standards Act affecting non-family, paid farm workers, there are several, and many were agreed-upon recommendations from the working classes.
The minimum wage will apply but paid farm workers are exempt from overtime provisions and from criteria around hours of work and breaks. They should be given off four days every 28 days, with the employer deciding on the timing “at their convenience and within reason.”
Holiday pay will be calculated on total wages, not on hours of work.
Erickson stated Ag Coalition members need to analyze the financial implications of these changes before providing additional comment.
“Anything that affects economics and doesn’t really play in the farm security side, those are things we are going to have to look at,” said Erickson.
Carlier said the new regulations come into effect Jan. 1, 2018, giving time for agricultural employers to educate themselves and their workers.
He confessed that Bill 6 and the subsequent act caused widespread concern in the farming community but said it has eased since first introduced.
“I feel a lot of the angst that we heard from the farm and ranch community about how it’s going to affect the family farm and 4-H and that type of thing, I truly don’t feel that that exists anymore but I want to reiterate to people that this will not in any shape or form change the culture around how children learn to become farmers, that work ethic, like all of us that grew up on farms, grew to love. It’s not going to change any of that.”