Alberta workers under the NDP, part one

The New Democrats were elected in Alberta nearly two years ago. What changes have the New Democrats brought forward on the labour front and what challenges lie ahead for Albertan workers and unions? To answer these questions,‘s Doug Nesbitt spoke with Bob Barnetson, Associate Professor of Labour Relations at Athabasca University in Alberta.

In part one of this interview, Barnetson surveys the state of health and safety and workers’ compensation reforms in Alberta, including Bill 6. In part two of the interview to be published next week, Barnetson talks about the challenges of union organizing in Alberta, the $15 minimum wage, and the politics of the province in a period of low oil prices. What was the state of Alberta’s health and safety laws before the New Democrats came to power in May 2015? How did these laws compare to other provinces?

Bob Barnetson: Alberta’s health and safety laws are pretty much the same as every other province’s laws in Canada. Yet, when you control for demographic and industry differences, what you find is that Alberta workers had the second highest risk of injury in Canada. I think that comes down to anemic enforcement of health and safety laws in Alberta.

Basically, employers have no chance of getting caught breaking the law, and if they do get caught breaking the law, there’s basically no chance they’re going to get penalized. In Alberta there are about 130 occupational health and safety officers for 160,000 businesses and maybe 2.2 million workers. What that means is that the chance of getting inspected in Alberta – the inspection cycle – is a once-in-a-generation thing. So, most workplaces are never inspected.

Over time, Alberta’s prosecutions, which is really the only meaningful penalty under the health and safety laws, have declined, particularly over the last five years, both in number and the dollar value of the penalties.

So that was really the state of things when the New Democrats were elected in 2015.

From the outside, the first big labour issue that came up under the NDP was Bill 6. What was Bill 6 and what happened with it?

 Bill 6 granted Alberta farm workers the same basic employment rights that everybody else in the province has: the right to know about workplace hazards, to refuse unsafe work without fear of job loss, the right to mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, the right to join a union, etc. Basically, it moved Alberta from the 19th century into the mid-20th century in terms of farm worker employment regulation.

One of the several anti-Bill 6 rallies that drew several hundred supporters each.
One of the several anti-Bill 6 rallies that drew several hundred supporters each.

Rural Alberta essentially lost its mind when this bill was enacted because they have been privileged by eighty years of conservative governments which have been reluctant to regulate farm employment. What you have is a quid pro quo: rural Alberta votes Tory, and then the Tories enacted policies favourable to rural Alberta, including essentially no regulation of farm work.

The real questions around Bill 6 are if and how the government intends to enforce it because there aren’t enough staff to do that. And portions of the health and safety provisions, and the application of employment standards and the labour code, are not yet clear. Those details are being sorted out in a consultation with a variety of stakeholders, including farmers who seem quite opposed to even the most basic employment rights: things like child labour laws that would prohibit 12-year-olds from working on farms.

Farm work has changed a fair bit since World War Two. The role of agribusiness has become enormous. Is the popular image of the family farm outdated? Is that one reason there’s a demand to modernize these laws?

Everybody talks about the family farm. In Alberta 95 percent of farms are still owned by families. But what we’re seeing is a hollowing out of the middle. The traditional family farm is ma and pa and a plow, and a quarter section 160 acres of land. That type of farm is quickly disappearing.

Average Canadian farm size by acreage, 1931-2006. Source.
Average Canadian farm size by acreage, 1931-2006. Source.

What we’re seeing now is two kinds of farms: small farms where farming is not necessarily the main source of income. Sometimes we call those hobby farms, but they are farms but they’re not very big and don’t provide a very significant amount of the food we get.

On the other end, we’re seeing giant farms and ranches; farmers who have ten or twenty sections of grain and oilseed. They hire employees and are highly capitalized operations. Those are what we think of as industrial farms. The farmer is more of a manager than the traditional jack-of-all-trades farmer.

On those larger farms, which seems to be the group that’s most targeted by Bill 6, the government is basically saying “you have to have basic health and safety provisions. You have to have mandatory workers’ compensation.” These are pretty reasonable things. If you want a box factory, those are requirements. If you own a multi-million dollar farm, it also seems reasonable to have those requirements.

So the complaints about Bill 6 being incredibly onerous for farmers don’t really hold up to scrutiny?

Most farms don’t have any paid help. These laws only affect instances where you have paid farm work. And most of the paid farm work occurs on giant farms which are large enough to be able to afford, and sophisticated enough to be able to implement the same kind of health and safety and other employment laws that we expect of mom and pop cornerstores. In Edmonton, if [mom and pop cornerstores] have to follow all these rules, why shouldn’t a multimillion dollar farm have to follow them?

Does Bill 6 extend the right to organize to farm workers?

That’s an open question. Bill 6 said that farm workers would have protections or would have labour relations rights: the right to collectively bargain and unionize, but the exact nature of that has been left open to these consultations. So it could be the full deal everyone else gets, or it could be a much thinner model along the lines of Ontario’s farm worker legislation. That’s not clear right now.

Mushroom farm.
Mushroom farm.

Practically speaking, most farm workers work in very small numbers. There aren’t a lot of farm workplaces with more than two workers, and most farm workers are transitory so the likelihood that we’d see a significant number of unionized farm workers in the next five years is pretty slim. We might see them on feedlots. That would probably be the most likely place for organizing to occur, or maybe mushroom farms. But the average grain farm isn’t going to see organizing. It’s just not practical.

You’ve recently been writing about health and safety standards now under review. Can you give an overview of what’s being examined, who’s being consulted, and why?

The only health and safety change that’s going on right now, that I’m aware of, is the government has introduced a private member’s bill to add harassment into the occupational health and safety code. The nub is they require employers to have policies around workplace harassment and they allow the government to investigate under the health and safety code if employers don’t address health and safety issues around harassment.

Really the questions there are around enforcement capacity: adding more to an already overstretched inspectorate is unlikely to generate any meaningful change on the ground. I think its laudable to include that in the health and safety act but really giving workers a right that they have no real way to access or remedy…that’s a pretty hollow thing.

What about workers’ compensation?

The other thing going on around workplace injury is the government reviewing the workers’ compensation system for the first time in fifteen years.

Many injured workers claim the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) treats them terribly and certainly there’s enough evidence to suggest that a significant minority of injured workers have a pretty rough ride through workers’ compensation. They’d say the WCB’s focused on denying claims and also limiting benefits around the claims that are accepted in order to minimize the premiums that employers pay.

That really sits uncomfortably with the Meredith principles that underlie workers’ compensation in Canada: where we have a workers’ compensation system, the sole purpose of which is to compensate workers for workplace injuries.

As I said, it’s been about fifteen years since we had a review of the system and I suspect one of the reasons it’s occurring now is that the volume of workers’ compensation issues that individual Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) face is high. I’ve heard that with some MLAs, a third or sometimes half of MLA contacts with constituents is about the WCB system. I think that raises for MLAs a spectre of a systematic problem. That seems borne out by the interim report of the Workers’ Compensation review panel that came out a few weeks ago.

Who is on the WCB review panel?

It’s a three-person panel. There’s a labour lawyer, an employer-side lawyer, and a neutral chair who is an arbitrator or mediator. Pemme Cunliffe is the employer-side lawyer. John Carpenter is the union-side lawyer and Mia Norrie is the neutral chair.

Reading your recent analysis of the WCB review consultations, one of the organizations you cite raises alarms. It was Merit Contractors, the same non-union alliance construction firms that was involved in Harper’s infamous C-377 anti-union legislation. What was Merit saying at this consultation?

Merit's anti-worker propaganda
Merit’s anti-worker propaganda

Merit has launched a public information campaign aimed mostly at employers raising concerns that the WCB review will result in higher WCB premiums because they fear the WCB will actually start believing injured workers. It’s a pretty craven and self-serving employer-side campaign which is pretty typical of what you see from Alberta employer groups whenever the issue of improving the lives of workers comes around.

Just on the face of it, the idea that the WCB would be raising premiums is cockamamie. Last year the WCB returned to employers $500 million in surplus premiums. If there are changes it may cut down a little bit on the surplus premium cheques that employers get but it is unlikely that premiums are going to go up. In that way, the [Merit] campaign is quite misleading.

Are there any further labour reforms on the horizon that may come to the legislature in the next couple years during this New Democratic mandate?

 The expectation was that over their first term, the New Democrats would also review the occupational health and safety act and code, the labour relations code, and the employment standards code. The labour code got changed for unions in 1987, but the employment standards code has not been meaningfully reviewed or reformed since about 1981.

It’s just got incredibly archaic language that doesn’t reflect the modern workplace. Over the years, the Tories tinkered with it in ways that make it difficult for workers to enforce their rights around wage theft.

All of those were thought to be open [with the election of the NDP]. We are now over 18 months into what we expect will be a four-year NDP mandate, so I wonder if they’re starting to run out of time to open up all this legislation before they head into another election cycle. I haven’t heard if there’s been any prioritization or not. I’d think the labour code would be the logical one to open because that’s the one organized labour is the most interested in seeing changed.

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