By Trevor Busch
Replacing the NDP’s controversial Bill 6, the UCP’s new Farm Freedom and Safety Act fulfills a promise to the party’s conservative grassroots while acting to revise laws surrounding mandatory workplace insurance requirements for small-scale operations.
Known as Bill 26, the legislation passed in the fall session now exempts small farms and ranches with five or fewer employees from being required to have workplace insurance.
“I’m actually hearing lots of good things, I’ve reached out to farmers and ranchers in my riding about Bill 26, the Farm Freedom and Safety Act, and they are quite happy with what they’re seeing,” said Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter, who also serves as associate minister of Red Tape Reduction.
Occupational health and safety standards still apply under the legislation, but all farms and ranches are now exempt from industry-specific safety standards instituted by the NDP. Bill 26 also prohibits workers in the industry from forming unions.
Bill 6 saw widespread opposition from farmers and producer groups when it was introduced in late 2015. Changes made by the UCP through Bill 26 have largely been supported by those in the industry, according to Hunter.
“I talked to some of the producer groups, and one of the guys said, ‘Well, I’m 90 per cent happy,’ and I said that’s an ‘A’ in everybody’s books. If we can get 90 per cent from you, then we gotta be happy. So I said to him what’s the 10 per cent that you weren’t happy with? And actually he didn’t know.”
Larger farm operations are still subject to employment standards rules for non-family, paid employees and must still have workplace insurance, but can now opt for a private plan rather than Workers Compensation.
“Everybody that I’ve talked to says this actually brings back some balance,” said Hunter. “It restored that balance that farmers and ranchers are looking for. This is about trying to be able to provide, obviously, safe working conditions. But this is always the difficulty for me, and for most of the farmers and ranchers I talk to, they say most of the farm workers that we have are like family, as if we’re not going to treat them safely. They were actually offended by the fact that the NDP thought they didn’t care about their farm workers, and their farm hands. This one, actually, from what I understand, people I talk to are quite happy about it. Both farmers, ranchers, and the farm labour.”
Greenhouses, nurseries, mushroom and sod farms are all classified under employment standards as farm and ranch operations, while cannabis operations are not. Of the estimated 41,000 farms in Alberta, about 9,000 are considered large-scale operations. Bill 26 comes into effect on Jan. 31, 2020.