The Alberta Government received an ear full from farmers and ranchers last week as it kicked off its series of information sessions on the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, which has been tabled in the legislature.

On Thursday, farmers from across the north jammed into a room in Grande Prairie to voice their concerns over the omnibus bill.   Dozens of others were left outside in the hall because of fire regulations.

Emotions ran high as farmers explained their fears about what this bill would do to their business and their way of life.

About 150 farmers showed up on the door step of the legislature on Friday to protest the bill.

If this is a taste of what is to come, the government can expect more of this week and in the coming weeks as information sessions are held across the province.

The number of meetings scheduled has already been increased from five to nine and the Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Lori Sigurdson tells me they are already looking at expanding that number again.

Farm groups across the province are calling on the province to hear what farmers are saying and ensure these concerns are reflected in the legislation.

Alberta Wheat Commission’s Kent Erickson, who farms in the Wainwright area, is glad farmers have gotten emotional about this and have united with one voice.

“This is our lifestyle, it’s not just a business decision that this is going to affect. It’s affecting how we raise our children, how we manage our relatives as workers on our farm and even how we manage our employees,” Erickson said.

Sigurdson is also pleased that farmers are voicing their concerns.

“I am very pleased to see the reaction of farmers and ranchers and just their engagement in this process.  As someone who has attended many protests myself I am very happy to see people stepping up on something believe sincerely in and that’s really important to our government and we’re listening to our farmers and ranchers and the information we receive from the consultations and from our online survey that’s so important to us because they’re the experts on their industry and we really want to make sure that the details of this bill will be crafted, taking those into consideration,” Sigurdson said.

The controversial bill has created a lot of questions as many feel they have been left in the dark as to how this will impact their operation.

Sylvan Lake area farmer and Alberta Barley Chairman Mike Ammeter says he is hearing these questions first hand every day.

“I’ve had many phone calls and run into guys with questions. I was at a machinery dealership where two or three of us standing around, guys asking questions what does this mean not only from a financial stand-point but how does this affect the lifestyle that we live,” said Ammeter.

Erickson says it’s really important for farmers to sit down and learn what is in this legislation so they can focus their concerns and questions.

“This has become a heated topic with a lot of facts and a lot of emotions, which have gotten in the way of some of the true issues that we are going to have with this bill.  And what we would really like to see is get people to understand there are four real components to this bill, there’s the Workers Compensation part of the bill, there’s Occupational Health and Safety, Employment Standards and finally the Labour Code and they’ve kind of lumped this whole bill into one. “

Ammeter says to call the sessions that took place between the farm groups and the government prior to the tabling of the legislation ‘consultations’ is taking some liberties.

“It was kinda presented to us as this is what is going to happen and obviously it did.  We were just given the news just over a week ago that Alberta was going to be included under OH&S legislation and mandatory Workers Compensation Board participation so that is not necessarily what I would call consultation, we were kinda told.

Erickson agrees saying there was a process and the word consultation can be used quite loosely to describe it.

“I call it an information session process we went through.”   He adds, “unfortunately the consultations we have been in where we have been respectively submitting (to the government) all of the concerns you are hearing right now from farmers to help to try to mold this bill into a more palatable form for farmers really hasn’t changed the bill very much.”  “So now we’re seeing an introduction of a bill, I know from our stand point, the employment standards and labour code that makes very little sense to our farms based on the seasonality and the nature of our lifestyle and business.”

Many concerns have been raised over what will be defined as a ‘farm worker’ in the legislation, especially when it comes to family members or neighbours helping out around the farm.  Sigurdson says these are the details they are working out in the consultation process which is going on right now.

“I think people think that has all been set, it hasn’t and that’s why it is so important the consultation process so that we can hear from farmers and ranchers and industry in general that these are the things that we have to consider uniquely.  We can’t just go in there and do what we do in other workplaces and industries, it’s very important for us to respect the uniqueness of farming and ranching sector so that is all to be determined. “

Both Erickson and Ammeter are encouraging producers to get out to the information sessions, even if they are fully booked to make sure the government gets the message that there needs to be more information sessions and more dialogue on this important bill.

Ammeter believes it will make a difference.

“We’re told we’re going to have great input in the coming weeks and months regarding the legislation so we’re hoping that will take place.  We’re trusting that we’ll be included in that conversation.”

When it comes to the Occupational Health and Safety part of the legislation, Erickson says we really don’t know where the injuries and deaths on farms are taking place and believe the government should be approaching this in a stepped approach.

“Let’s let Occupational Health and Safety come on our farm investigate serious incidents or fatalities not for the purpose of penalties, enforcement or even technical standards but more first to find out where we are having the fatalities and injuries and how we can use education to help out farmers.”

Sigurdson agrees that the focus here should be on education.

“Right now we can’t support farmers and ranchers to look at ways they can make their work safer and I know that’s what they want.  What can we do to support farmers and ranchers to make sure their workplaces and their homes are safe and we very much wanting to move forward with an educational model, we want to be gradual regarding that to make sure that we are supporting. “

In a recent newsletter to ranchers, the Alberta Beef Producers outlined its position on the different parts of the bill.

It says they do not support mandatory WCB coverage, instead they believe farms and ranches should be required to have insurance for their employees and the decision on selecting the appropriate insurance should left to each individual farm.

It is accepting of the changes to the OH&S Act to allow for investigations of fatalities, serious injuries and complaints on farms and ranches.  However it has serious concern about fair and consistent enforcement of any new regulations on farms across the province.

Overall they are continuing to push their position that awareness, education and training are more effective tools than legislation in making farms and ranches more safe.

For more information on the town halls click here. or to provide feedback online click here.