Dr. Swann Debates Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole) – 05 June 2017

Taken from the Alberta Hansard for Monday, June 5, 2017.

Bill 17 – Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act (Committee of the Whole)

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I have an amendment to submit.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. If you could please just wait until I have the original. Your amendment will be referred to as A15. Please go ahead.

Dr. Swann: Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I’m very pleased to stand and speak to Bill 17, Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, with an amendment I think that everyone here will find reasonable. It has to do with break times. I mean, to expect workers to work unlimited hours without a break – and I’m speaking here of paid farm workers – seems eminently unfair, non family friendly, and it flies in the face of all of the values that this government has said that they believe in. We’re suggesting here that we amend section 4 in the proposed section 2.1(1) by striking out clause (a) and substituting

(a) section 16 of Part 2, Division 3, Hours of Work;

Madam Chair, under the workplace standards everywhere else in Alberta after five hours of work it’s expected that a worker would get 30 minutes of rest, but unfortunately paid farm workers are exempt from any kind of provision for rest. I’m particularly concerned with young people, foreign workers, people who are vulnerable, people who may not want to ask for a rest because it’s not written into their contract. I don’t see how we could avoid at least putting in some concrete terms the recognition of the need for a rest break.

Under the current rest period for every other worker an employer must provide each employee who works five hours or more with at least 30 minutes of rest, whether paid or unpaid, unless there’s an accident or different rest provisions are provided or it’s not reasonable for the employee to take a rest period during that time. Well, that to me says that we have a double standard again.

I raised this issue about overtime pay, and now I’m raising the issue in relation to fair and safe work practices where people can have a break. We’re putting this provision in not only for an unfair expectation of, especially, naive workers and foreign workers; we’re also putting them at risk of injury if they push on and push on. In some farm operations it’s true that you just have to work overtime. But if we’re not putting into legislation some legislated protection for some kind of rest period, we are setting people up for injuries, accidents, and problems.

Further to that, I don’t think I need to add that this is a government that wants to be fair. They want to be family friendly. There is just absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t include in these important changes for employee standards and labour standards, some provision for rest. I rest my case, Madam Chair. I can’t imagine any refutation of that.

Thank you.

Mr. Nielsen: Thank you, Madam Chair. I appreciate the member bringing forward this amendment. Certainly, the spirit of the intention of this amendment is definitely a good one. One of the things that we heard within the working groups that have been working very, very diligently with our farm and ranch owners and the workers that they pointed out is that this type of amendment might kind of push things a little bit too far, that they’re unable to adapt to this. You know, that was one of the recommendations that was brought forward to us. The government looked very, very seriously at this. You know, as the title says, the fair part – what we have so far is a very big gain. As the system begins to grow and we see where things are maybe not working as well, we can certainly start to adjust for those.

It’s very, very reluctantly that I would not be able to support this amendment at this time. Again, I do want to thank the member for bringing this forward. I certainly understand the intentions of it. I would have to ask members of the House to not support it at this time.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak?

Dr. Swann: Well, that’s very unfortunate, Madam Chair. It strikes me that this government has been cowed by industrial agriculture. They got such push-back on Bill 6 that they’re now backing away from the most fundamental worker right of all, a chance to rest when folks are tired. On one hand, they seem to have said that it’s time for a change in Alberta, but somehow it’s a step too far to ensure that young people and new Canadians especially are treated fairly in the workplace. Folks could work 28 days straight under the current legislation with only one day off and no rest periods. They could work 18 hours and have no break under the current legislation.

It’s really disappointing to me that they would take the big step, certainly, to bring in Bill 6 and ensure some kind of safety, some kind of standards, and then exempt farm workers just because of the aggressive ag coalition and their throwing their weight around in the rural areas and, presumably, intimidating this government in terms of its election and political future in the rural areas.

Again, I think that any reasonable person looking at it would say that rather than err on the side of putting no constraints on employers, especially industrial agriculture, we should at least put something in there that suggests that there is a recourse for an employee who feels vulnerable to losing their job and at the same time feels vulnerable if they carry on under the conditions that they’re being asked to continue under. It flies in the face of what this government says is fair and family friendly and all because they’re afraid of push-back from big ag, which has continued to dominate the scene since these working groups were established.

Again, it’s not only disingenuous to say that we have reluctance to address these needs; some of the accidents, injuries, and even deaths will be on your watch if you are unwilling to even look at a modicum of required rest for, especially, young people. We’re now allowing 14- to 16-year-olds to do certain duties on farms. Quite frankly, even an 18-year-old who is new to industrial agriculture will be very reluctant to push against the employer and say: “This is unreasonable, to expect me and others to work in hour 18 when I haven’t had a break and when I feel like I’m numbed out. I can’t even think straight, and I’m not going to expect anything from you.” Ninety-five per cent of employers would never do this, obviously, but the reason we make legislation is to cover the 5 per cent of people that are not reasonable, that are not responsible, that are not thinking of their workers. They’re thinking of themselves and their own bottom line.

So I encourage the government to rethink this. Even enshrining something for the protection, the rest protection of paid farm workers would send a message: “We recognize that people are human beings, and they have a right to a break, whether they are a paid farm worker or any other worker. We value your health. We value you as a person. We recognize that you have the rights of every other worker in this province to be safe and take the rest breaks as you need them.” I would encourage the government to rethink this as it smacks of political opportunism, and I don’t think it will escape most paid farm workers that this is not a fair or family-friendly decision.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak to amendment A15? The hon. Member for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville.

Mrs. Littlewood: Sorry. I cede the floor to my colleague.

The Deputy Chair: The hon. Member for Edmonton-Decore.

Mr. Nielsen: Thank you, Madam Chair. Sorry for that small confusion there.

You know, I guess I just wanted to point out for other folks here some of the folks that were part of the working group that brought forward these recommendations. We had members such as Blaine Staples, a Red Deer county producer, U-pick and agritourism operator; Stuart Theissen from Strathmore, a producer, a cow-calf farmer and grain feedlot operator; Susan Schafers, a Stony Plain egg farmer; Laurie Fries, a Wainwright mixed livestock producer. The list is a lot longer as well. I certainly don’t want to belabour the point here, but this was just some of the folks that were part of that working group other than sort of the big agribusiness as well.

They were also onboard with trying to – you know, with the new rules coming in, we didn’t want to make things too hard going forward and wanted to ensure that our farm and ranch sector thrives going forward. Certainly, as that happens, we’ll be able to probably have more discussions with these groups and businesses in order to go forward and again try to build consensus, like we did this last time, about any changes that they might want to look at in the future.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak? The hon. Member for Calgary-Mountain View.

Dr. Swann: Madam Chair, thank you. Again, we’re talking about a thriving agriculture sector on the backs of exploited people. I don’t get that. It flies in the face of your values and your stated goals in Bill 6. Yes, we want it to thrive. In fact, it will thrive better if they don’t have lawsuits and accidents and deaths because a few bad apples are forcing people to work significant hours and overstrain themselves and take on things in poor judgment. It doesn’t wash. It just doesn’t wash. I think these folks will be wearing egg on their faces if they continue to argue that it’s not right for 95 per cent of the workers in the province but that it’s okay for the 5 per cent or 10 per cent that are described as paid farm workers. It doesn’t make sense.

The fact that quite a few owners and operators said, “Yes, this is okay with us”: where are the farm workers? What is their voice in this? In fact, it’s been barely heard on some of these panels because farm workers are still too intimidated to speak out, demand their rights, and ask for equal consideration in all this. It’s disappointing.

There it is, Madam Chair.

The Deputy Chair: Thank you, hon. member. Are there any other members wishing to speak to the amend-ment? Seeing none, I’ll call the question.

[Motion on amendment A15 lost]