Ag Minister talks Farm Freedom and Safety Act

Dreeshen says farmers want choice in their insurance coverage and a safe work environment for their families

By Tim Kalinowski

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen stopped in Lethbridge last in August for another round of consultations on the Farm Freedom and Safety Act, which Kenney government is expected to bring forth sometime this fall to replace the former NDP government’s Bill 6.

Dreeshen spoke about the process to replace Bill 6, which he says has been open, transparent and takes into account farmer’s opinions on labour laws and insurance protections for their industry.

“Someone said you actually start these meetings with blanks sheets of paper on the wall,” Dreeshen told Ag-Matters, “and then we, throughout the hour and a half or whatever (time it takes), actually get to put ideas and thoughts onto those pieces of paper. And then it is up to the Agriculture and Forestry staff to compile it and write up a summary.

“It is very much our intention with the consensus we build from these consultations, as well as our online survey which is available until the end of the (August), to be able to put all that together and have a consensus from it, and be able to draft the legislation from it.

“It is very much a grassroots process,” he emphasized. “We did campaign on certain things, like having a choice in insurance or having three farm employee exemption, but that didn’t come from a vacuum. It came from consulting from farmers. We are now going out and consulting farmers, and the fact some of the same themes are reoccurring isn’t a surprise.

“This is a grassroots process, and we get new ideas every now and again too, which is nice— but it’s very much a grassroots process.”

Dreeshen said the NDP’s Bill 6 was a flawed piece of legislation from day one which, he stated, could not be salvaged by later round tables and consultations

“If you were a paid employee, who could actually unionize, then your safety was more important than an actual farmer’s kid, in their (NDP) mentality,” said Dreeshen. “The whole premise of Bill 6 in what they tried to tie into that bill was just ridiculous. That’s why we are committed to repeal and replace. You can’t simply amend that concept, because it is non-sensical. And that’s why this (town hall) input is so important— we want to repeal and replace Bill 6 with something which actually has common sense.

“Bill 6 never had a ghost of a chance of anyone being in compliance with. It was just a bad piece of legislation,” he said.

Dreeshen acknowledged there were some aspects of the WCB or private insurance choice the Farm Freedom and Safety Act where farmers were going to have to tread carefully. The Act is expected to make insurance for all farms with employees mandatory, but with a choice between a public or private option.

“I think a lot of farmers do think of insurance as not just an added input cost,” Dreeshen stated. “It is insurance; so it actually protects them as a farmer and as an employer as well. We will be making sure there is that education component (after the act is ratified), so that farmers are aware insurance is there to protect them, as well as their employees.”

Dreeshen acknowledged WCB has full liability coverage, and some private insurance plans do not, or have limits on liability. It was up to the farmer to choose carefully which insurance plan they wished to utilize on their farms to ensure their liability was covered in the case of a serious farm accident or fatality involving an employee.

“It depends on the private insurance; some does have that (strong liability coverage),” he said. “It’s a case by case basis; so I think rather than being too prescriptive, and making sure there is that choice in insurance, but at the end of the day farmers are able to make the right decisions for themselves.”

The Farm Freedom and Safety Act all proposes that all farms with three or fewer employees would be exempt from OHS guidelines standard for other industries. Dreeshen admitted there was a lot of feedback coming in from farmers on both sides of this issue, with some saying it should be five or fewer, and other saying it should have no exemptions for farms with paid employees at all.

“There is (that discussion) in these consultations where we are trying to build a consensus of what exactly it will look like,” Dreeshen said. “If there is this over-arching education component to it, then that should be something available to everyone.”

Dreeshen indicated strongly the government would be putting additional resources into farm education safety training and awareness, regardless of what the final Farm Freedom and Safety Act legislation looked like. Dreeshen acknowledged from time to time the agriculture industry comes under greater public scrutiny and critique when news comes out about on-farm accidents, particularly involving fatalities to children. Dreeshen said it creates a false impression in some people’s minds the agriculture industry as a whole is unsafe.

“I think there gets to be a misconception that somehow farmers are putting their kids in workplace situations that are unsafe,” he said. “And I think by and large, on any farm I have seen, they want to make sure whether it’s their son or daughter, cousin, niece or nephew— or long-time farm worker they have had for years— they want to make sure that person goes home safe at the end of the day.

“That is something where we are working with farmers, with ranchers, and workers as well, to say, ‘Let’s have a common sense, pro-active education component that can be there before an accident or an incident ever happens.’

“How can we better educate a culture of safety on farms here in Alberta that could ultimately prevent any type of workplace accident on a farm?”

Dreeshen suggested the government is considering putting together a Best Management Practices guide to help increase farm safety which is derived from notable industry sources and role models.

“There should be a certain amount of farmers in this room that are very safe farmers,” said Dreeshen, “that should be a standard that other farms who aren’t as safe should maybe try to work a little harder to make sure they are.”

Dreeshen said guided by common sense and input from farmers themselves his government was certain the new Farm Freedom and Safety Act would meet the needs of the agriculture industry, and ensure workers and farmers are covered in the case of injury or workplace tragedy on their farms.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter industry where it is a factory of a certain size; it’s variable, it changes, and whatever (law) comes at the end of the day must be something that is practical and has a common sense element built into it.”