March 16, 2019 1:37 am
Updated: March 21, 2019 12:07 am

Alberta couple speaks out in support of farm-safety legislation

WATCH ABOVE: A southern Alberta family that risked their livelihood to see the province's farm safety legislation passed, say they plan to continue to fight for it no matter who is in power. Louise van Dam has the story.

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Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney says if the UCP is elected, he would repeal a controversial bill regarding workplace legislation for farmers.

But there are some who have put their livelihood on the line to see Bill 6 put in place, and they say they’re not going to stop fighting any time soon.

Eric Musekamp and his partner, Darlene Dunlop, worked on farms in southern Alberta as truck drivers for years before they became activists.

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They say they loved working in the industry, but after seeing one too many preventable accidents and being fired from jobs for refusing to do work they thought was unsafe, they decided to start the Farmworkers Union of Alberta.

Dunlop and Musekamp say they worked for one more season in farming after starting the union, but have been unable to find work in the industry ever since.

Musekamp says he was disappointed when he heard Kenney’s comments but wasn’t overly surprised.

“It seems to be the way Mr. Kenney operates,” Musekamp says. “He’s, in my opinion, using the farm worker issue and the legitimate concerns of farmers and ranchers — he’s using that as a political pandering tool rather than helping farmers and ranchers understand the need for the legislation and the benefits to the whole industry and for farmers and ranch employers particularly.

“He instead chooses to play on their legitimate fears and concerns, so I’m troubled by that.”

Musekamp says Kenney and others in the UCP have been putting false information forward by saying there is a better alternative to the Workers’ Compensation Board coverage.

READ MORE: Kenney vows to axe, replace rules on Alberta farm employment and injury compensation

“That simply is not the case,” he says. “WCB is unique in that it protects employers from tort liability, from being sued in court. The legislation prevents that. It strips the worker of their right to take legal action and sue in exchange for no-fault automatic coverage under WCB. It’s the only way that employers can protect themselves from tort liability. Private insurance is simply not able to do that, nor do they.

“WCB is no-fault. Even if it’s the employer’s fault, they’re still covered and protected and cannot be sued. And on top of that, WCB pays the health-care costs for injured workers, whereas private insurance puts those costs onto the public purse through the health-care system.”

Musekamp says there have also been complaints about Occupational Health and Safety standards on farms because of the “reams of paperwork” it creates.

“The paperwork is there to protect the employer, to demonstrate their due diligence,” he says. “Somehow, some guys seem to think if they aren’t under OHS standards, they aren’t responsible or liable for what happens on their farm or with their workers, but that’s not the case.

“The owner is always liable. They’re liable to the Criminal Code and they’re liable for tort damages. The OHS standards provide a template for employers to follow so that they can exercise their due diligence. The Criminal Code of Canada requires employers to take all reasonable and practical measures to protect workers. But the employers are generally not experts, even though they’re expected to do everything. It’s a guide; you follow the OHS code and that’s what protects you from criminal liability.”

Musekamp says OHS standards also divide the responsibility of workplace safety three ways.

“The employer has the responsibility to provide safe equipment and proper training et cetera. The worker has a legal duty to follow proper practices, and the government has a legal duty to provide proper standards.

“Without OHS, only the Criminal Code of Canada applies, and it applies only to the boss.”

Dunlop and Musekamp both express concern that Alberta’s agriculture sector would be dropped by the international market if the bill is repealed. They reference a report completed for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry called Sustainability Indicators, Tools and Reporting Systems for Agri-Food Products. The report looked at the 22 biggest purchasers of agricultural products around the world.

READ MORE: Final phase of Alberta farm worker safety bill takes effect December 1

“Each one of these companies has sustainable-purchasing and ethical-buying protocols,” Musekamp says. “One of the components of sustainable, ethical buying are labour standards, animal welfare, food safety, environmental standards and human rights.

“Going forward, the invisible hand of the marketplace is going to demand these standards be in place. We are going to be left on the sidelines if Jason Kenney turns back Bill 6. We will be completely out of step and out of touch with the rest of the world market.”

Ryan Kasko’s family has run its family-owned cattle business since 1979. They’ve grown from a single farm into a large-scale operation of four feedlots which have a standing capacity of 40,000 head of cattle. They also employ more than 50 people.

Kasko says farm safety is important to his family and that there is a “need to continue making improvements on farm safety, but the way [Bill 6] was implemented, I don’t think it satisfied the needs of farmers and workers on the farms in the first place.”

Referencing his affiliation with the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, he says they “have been quite active with other farm organizations prior to Bill 6 coming along in finding solutions to improving farm safety.”

“But we were disappointed that our organizations weren’t consulted on Bill 6 specifically,” Kasko says. “Any future changes, I think it’s imperative to involve farm people to help create the policy.

“We want farm safety; we just want practical solutions that make our farms safer.”

Kasko says he would prefer the flexibility of being able to choose his insurance provider and let the market decide what a fair rate is. Kasko Cattle provided their employees with insurance before the legislation was implemented and decided to continue providing private insurance for their workers on top of the WCB after Bill 6 was passed.

“One thing about our previous insurance was that it covered our employees, whether they are at work or not,” he says. “So that was important to them and having to take WCB meant that we could possibly lose that option.

“We decided to keep both, so we’ve got our private insurance plus WCB, so it’s added an extra layer of cost for us and we think that that’s unnecessary.”

Kasko says he is happy that farmers have been consulted more since the bill was implemented to help shape safety standards, however, he doesn’t agree with changes to “labour standards that have nothing to do with safety.”

“I think that was upsetting to lot of farmers when you start to talk about workers unionizing,” he says. “We didn’t think that’s necessary for our sector. It adds a whole lot of complexity in labour standards and there was never any desire by workers in Alberta to unionize on farms.

“It creates friction between the owners and the people on the farms and we didn’t want to have that adversarial relationship.,” Kasko says. “A lot of the farm workers are people working closely with their friends… we consider them to be part of our family.

“That really upset a lot of farmers that it’s trying to create a wedge between the people who work on farms and the owners of the farms.”

Musekamp says even though they now have the right to do so, no farms have unionized since it became possible three years ago.

Another change Kasko would want to see, if the bill was being amended, is ensuring “OHS inspectors that come on farms are specifically trained in working in agriculture and have some sensitivity to the different nature of an operation that we have.”

“A lot of them are family operations and if they come on the farm, [it’s important] that they’re sensitive to the fact that they’re dealing with people working and living in the same place,” he says. “We’ve seen instances where there wasn’t that sensitivity and it was quite troubling.”

Kasko says there have been incidents where OHS inspectors have come to a farm “and have been really hard on families that have gone through farm accidents, and it’s just uncalled for.”

Kasko says in some of those cases, he believes the inspectors “added to the trauma.”

By law, the 2019 provincial election has to be held between March 1 and May 31.

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