An Open Letter (err, diatribe) on Bill 6,

Many of our customers, friends, family, and fellows in local food have been hearing an awful lot about Bill 6 in Alberta. For those who haven’t, here is the rundown. Bill 6 was introduced by the Alberta government to bring the province of Alberta in line with national and other provincial legislation on Occupational Health and Safety, Workers Compensation Boards, and labour laws in agriculture. The legislation has a lot of people up in arms, and it has become a running public relations issue for the government.

Fellow compatriots in the local food and regenerative agriculture world, please, I beg you, stop protesting over this bill. Stop complaining about it. Stop saying it is going to doom the family farm. Stop saying it was rushed and done with too little consultation.

Laws in Alberta go through a series of readings and amendments before they are passed. Three readings, each with debate and amendment periods, followed by a final examination before royal assent. The current government has said, repeatedly, that they will extend the time between second and third readings to give more consultation. This is not rushed legislation, this is overdue legislation that is being heavily consulted on by the government in a manner that the previous government had never done. For the last 20 years legislation affecting farmers has been fast tracked in the name of oil and gas or economic progress, and farmers have been utterly removed from the process (or utterly ignored). Bill 6 is moving at an appropriate pace given the legislation. The government is listening to stakeholders. This is a non-issue.

Currently agriculture in Alberta is sheltered from minimum wage laws, labour safety laws, workers rights laws (including unionization), and has special privileges around temporary foreign workers, CPP, EI, and OAS contributions. It is the only industry in Alberta that has these exceptions, and people are getting killed on the job or injured regularly because of it. This legislation will be a step in the right direction to protect the men and women who are growing, packing, and shipping the food that keeps us alive.

A lot of people are waving the flag around the family farm, concerned that these labour law changes will increase the cost of production and put the family farm out of business. I see two issues with this.

First, the definition of a family farm needs to include scale. Most people picture the family farm as a husband and wife team with a few kids working away to make ends meet. That is true for some, but the family farm also includes business operators running 10,000+ acres of grains or 5,000+ head of cattle with dozens of employees. These are big businesses with multi-million dollar cash flow statements. Some are family collectives, like the Hutterites. Some are older couples working a market garden. These labour law loopholes help the big operators a huge amount. Lillydale Chicken loves them. A 10,000+ acre grain operation loves them. Big feedlots and slaughter facilities love them. For the small family these laws are almost meaningless. I already have to pay $15-20/hour for help, let alone minimum or day wages. I already have to carry insurance for staff (including myself) in case of injury. We are already labour cost pinched. This legislation will do nothing to change that fact at our scale.

Second, the family farm doesn’t fail because of costs. The family farm fails because of an inability to increase revenue and access markets. Most farms are chained to a commodities system that tells them what they get paid, when they get paid, and how much it will cost to ship it (lowering what they get paid). They are price takers, not price makers. The number one force in driving down the revenue of the family farm is the consumer’s unwillingness to pay more for food. In Canada we spend a paltry 9% of our household income on food and want it lower. Enough so it was an election issue. Of that the typical farmer gets $0.07 – $0.10 on every dollar spent.

Think about that. The median income in Canada is $35,000/year. 9% of that is $3150 a year spent on food. Of that the family farm gets $220 – $315. That’s it. For a YEAR. That is the economic contribution to the family farm. Every time a consumer protests the high price of food they are asking the farmer to take less money for their labours. It is driving them out of business at a rate that is astounding. Alberta is now down to 49,000 farms and shedding 7-10% of that number each year. Average age? 65. What sort of young person would go into an industry as fundamentally broken as agriculture? This is commodities based global economics in action.

There is also a very vocal set of people protesting the government getting involved in family farm matters. They never talk about the big corporate farms that are the bulk of labour abuses who also really dislike this legislation. They focus on the “nanny state” trying to take control of farmer’s lives by removing their rights and way of life. This is probably the most galling sort of statement I’ve heard.

Here is the reality of the rights family farms have lost due to legislation over the last 50 years: we don’t own the water in our dugouts and ponds (or have full access rights to it); we don’t own the mineral rights under our soil; we can be evicted from our family farms at any time; we have no control over industry development on our land; we have no right to process and sell food from our property without herculean permitting; we are limited in dozens of food products on how much we can grow, raise, and sell via quota boards. The family farm is quite literally wrapped in legal chains that are driving us out of business. Nobody has protested these changes over the last 50 years, and nobody is protesting them now.

So if you are suddenly irate over legislation that will make farming safer because it will damage the family farm lifestyle I have two questions for you. Where have you been and will you step up by spending more money on local family farms?

Customers, we love you. Friends and followers, you are the reason we are working in this calling and industry called farming. We are in this to heal the land, building beauty and health for everyone we interact with. If you want to help us do send your thoughts on to the government about Bill 6, that is an excellent thing to do. But do so informed with the actual situation in agriculture. Then come see us at the farmer’s market and buy our veg.

Cheers,
Marcus Riedner

10 thoughts to “An Open Letter (err, diatribe) on Bill 6,

  • Susan Roberts

    Wow! Great comments. And good insight on the history of this! Thanks Marcus

    Reply
  • Kathy Parsons

    Well written Marcus. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Irene Borter

    So if you’re a stay at home mom with two kids and your husband even earns slightly over average you spend 1000$ on food each month ( as I’m guessing the 9%apply to one person) and you seriously think that’s ok??? Now of course this number is a bit high but I can tell you from personal experience ( I have four kids and three grandchildren ) that a famy of four spends at least 800$ on groceries every month. That’s more like 20% of their monthly income.

    Reply
    • Marcus Riedner

      Of course if you are a single income family on a median budget with two kids you are going to be spending a proportionally higher amount on food. Yes I think it is okay for those on the lower end of the income spectrum to spend more on food proportionally. Food is a priority, as are shelter and clothing. For those of us in Canada who are unable to balance these costs we should have a strong social net to help support them on the bottom end. That safety net can not come at the expense of the livelihood of farmers. We are not slaves for society. Right now more often than not WE are the ones at that bottom income tier struggling to keep things going.

      To put this into perspective the current stats for the family farm is that we are earning, on average, a pitiable $2,000 a year from our farming enterprises. This is AFTER we are able to write off mountains of capital expenses on our taxes. We are keeping the farm afloat, and food in Canada’s belly, by taking second and third jobs off the farm. Farmers are working themselves to death for zero economic gain; they could make ten times that amount shoving the capital expenses of farming into a savings account at 1.75% interest.

      If Canada wants a strong, local, sustainable agriculture sector it will have to be built out on smaller farms and family farms. If that is what Canada wants then food will have to increase to 25% of the household budget, possibly as high as 35%. If Canada wants a fragile, centralized, industrialized, low quality food system then we are right on target to get there. In 10 years Alberta will be down to 17,000 farms if the current economic and social trend continues. That is pretty scary if you ask me.

      Reply
  • Scott MacPherson

    Hello, I appreciate your letter but i would like to state why some of us contiune to fight. To us this bill is not about safety in the work place because every farmer I have talk to stands up for and agrees with safety and workers rights but the way it is being pushed through the house with out proper rules in place. I would like to talk about what we feel this bill will bring on to the farm. First off the bill was introduced and it is to be pushed through in less than a month and when it was introduced there already was rules put up on the government website that stated all people, owners, family, volunteers, workers and hired help were to be covered with WCB and OHS with the codes to be changed in the next year. I’m not positive but as you stated shippers and packers are covered with this unless it is done on farm, they are already covered and regulated in a different industry. The rules were pulled off the website and we were told it was a miscommunication which I do not believe. On our farm and many around us rely on volunteers, friends, and family so for me to value them and have to pay premiums on them would be huge and by having to join WCB and OHS and would now be subject to labour codes that would not permit my kids to help. I do believe insurance should be in place on all farms but why WCB. We already carry insurance so I would have to carry two policys or cancel the private one which in a lot of cases is better. This bill needs to be shut down until it has been given the attention it deserves because of the complexity between WCB, OHS codes and labour codes. There is no rules in place for any of them which scares me the most of passing this bill because the government says trust me and we all know how that goes. I do take exception to your comment of stakeholders being consulted with because the letters keep coming in from the very same stakeholders saying they did not see this coming and were not properly consulted. I understand there is a process to passing a bill, but a bill of this magnitude and affecting so many people can not be taken lightly and the 45 days give or take they have taken is no where near long enough. You say the government said they would have proper time and debate between readings but this has proven to be wrong as they have now shut down and limited debate to 1 hour per reading. I do agree that we should have stood up a long time ago on the government regulation but now is as good a time as any. With the new ammendments all farms with paid workers that are not family or volunteers will need these rules and to me that doesn’t leave very many farms in alberta that will fall under them so what is the need for a bill, just state all farms must carry insurance private or public, their choice. I don’t believe they were prepared to pass a bill this big and now just don’t want to back down. I will leave it at that. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Marcus Riedner

      Scott, thanks for your comment.

      When I talk about shipping, processing, and transportation I am talking about those tasks done under the guise of a farm enterprise. A prime example of this would be on Hutterite colonies, where a lot of that labour is done on the farm and exempt from labour laws. There are also loopholes being exploited by larger packing firms and farming firms (such as contract chicken production to Lillydale).

      In every other industry in Alberta workers are covered by these labour laws. I think it is silly to have agriculture exempt from what every other industry does in regards to labour protection. A drilling company has to abide by these laws, a construction company does, a white collar bank does. I see no reason why the 49,000 farm businesses in Alberta should be exempt. That said I do agree, the laws between the various moving parts of our current labour code are a mess. Bloated, over complicated, and conflicting. But that still doesn’t excuse a farm business from falling under the same laws every other business operates under.

      This bill is of minor magnitude. Lets be honest, it affects less than 1% of the province. Farming is so minor a component of our work force it isn’t even on the census any more. It feels like a big deal to us in farming, and because the media is sensationalizing it, but this is really minor legislation bringing the last industry in Alberta under the standard labour laws. These labour laws have been in place and worked on for decades, so I think it is highly misleading to characterize the situation as rushed. 45 days is plenty of time.

      As to limiting the debate, I don’t like that either. Nor do I like when the government starts posting things on their website that indicate a law has changed before it has gone through the due process in the legislature. But having lived in Alberta most of my life I’m pretty used to our government doing things like that; it is now common practice in the halls of governance. That issue goes well beyond Bill 6, and hits almost every bit of legislation.

      I also get the concern over unpaid labour. Without my Mom’s help last season (unpaid) I would not have made it through. I had a knee injury and it slowed me down a lot; she picked up a lot of the slack and pulled us through the season. She didn’t get compensated for her time, but we’re family. Two years ago we put in an acre of orchard using a pile of volunteer labour. It would have taken us a week to do without them. So I get it.

      Reply
      • Talitha

        A quick Google search of exempt industries will show you that there are MANY industries exempt from WCB as well as from certain OHS regulations. Farmers want to be able to have the option to continue to use the private (cheaper, more comprehensive) insurance instead of WCB – the same program Notley spoke out against for being ineffective & corrupt a short time ago. This would be better for them, better for their employees (as employees are covered ’round the clock, not just while at work), and would still ensure that employees have (better than) basic protection.

        The NDP has already acknowledged the there WILL be OHS exemptions (just like there are in other industries). Farmers just wanted the NDP to slow down and put bill 6 through once they knew what those exemptions were going to be. Now, as of Jan 1, farmers arent protected by any exemptions. So for example, they a can only work 8 hours a day or 40 hours/week. If a cow is calving in the field at 2am, in -30 weather, & both mom & baby are at risk of freezing to death, the farmer can’t legally do anything.

        Even the NDP knows that exemptions need to be made for the ag industry.And they plan to have them – by 2016/2017. That wasn’t good enough for farmers. They didn’t want the bill to go through until it was READY. What’s so wrong about that??

        Reply
  • Tobi

    I have to say I agree with Scott fully. The bottom line is that the bill was rushed! When there are 43,234 farmers in Alberta and a petition signed by 30,000 against Bill 6, the people are sending a clear message that they need more time. And the fact that this effects only 1% of the population and mostly only large farming enterprises is somewhat true but is no excuse. Infact, the small amount of people able to stand up against Bill 6 are taking the biggest stands in history as we saw at the numerous rallies and facebook pages. Just because they are small in numbers doesn’t mean they should have a small voice especially when Bill 6 is suppose to be for their benefit. Besides, Notley publicly admitted that due to her past employment by WCB it is a PERSONAL matter for her which certainly does not help her defence that she listening to the people. All that said, I believe that passing the bill will actually be a good thing in the end, but probably not in Notleys favor.

    Reply
  • john

    wcb is the most pathetic insurance company to work with, if you have ever had a claim you would know this.security is like fort knox at there buildings why because they are the biggest rip off in Canada..

    Reply
  • Maryann Borch

    Thank you Marcus. You`ve thought this out and said all I would want to. Scott, thank you too for replying civilly. I see your points too. The only thing I have to add is my feelings… not very concrete I know… But I feel like this government isn`t like the last… if they say they will take the time with the regulations and fitting the bill to suit everyone, I actually believe them. As I have been called a hippy lately I will end with the customary: Peace 🙂

    Reply

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