Bill 17 reforms modest and long overdue

To The Editor

Re: Alberta Bill 17 – The Fair and Family Friendly Workplaces Act
I am writing to comment on the efforts by the Government of Alberta to modernize labour legislation in the province and extend it to farm operations.
First off, I think the reforms are long overdue and are only catching up to what other jurisdictions, including Saskatchewan, have done in whole or in part. Ending the exemption of farm operations from labour standards and labour relations legislation is something that should have occurred in the 20th century.
Providing for the ability of farm workers to unionize simply acknowledges a right they have under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those who oppose the relatively modest reforms spelled out in Bill 17 resort to shrill hyperbole in expressing their opposition. For example, farm workers in Saskatchewan have had the right to unionize since 1945 and no one can claim it’s been a negative factor whatsoever in determining the fate of agriculture or the family farm.
People who oppose the right of farm workers to join a union seem to believe they have something to fear and maybe they do, if they’re the kind of employer who doesn’t have fair or respectful employment practices. Workers join unions when they want dignity and respect in the workplace.
Even with the passage of Bill 17 the prospect of small groups of farm workers banding together and unionizing seems fairly remote if the Saskatchewan experience over the last 72 years is any indication. Unfortunately economic realities and the relative isolation of farm workers present serious barriers to unionizing farm operations. These barriers can only be overcome if there is some form of sectoral representation and collective bargaining and that is not provided for in Alberta’s Bill 17.
The right to unionize is no less integral to a democracy than the right to vote. Opposing legislative recognition of the right to unionize, however symbolic it might be in relation to farm workers in Alberta, is akin to defending the master and servant dynamics of past centuries. It is ironic that opponents use social media platforms to express their pre-19th century prejudices.
In my opinion, the same flaws are present in the arguments against extending minimum labour standards requirements to farm operations. Why should farm operations be exempt when the local garage, grocery store or farm supply outlet aren’t exempt? In the entire supply chain serving farms that produce field crops for shipping and processing, only the farm is exempt from minimum labour standards legislation. This is an anachronistic continuation from the time when the “mom and pop” family farm was the prevailing norm. By the way, mom, pop and other members of the family are exempt from coverage by Bill 17, but why let facts get in the way of the ideological rantings of those who want democracy for themselves and servitude for others.

Hugh Wagner
GSU General Secretary


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