December 1, 2015 / 8:35 PM / 2 years ago

Canada's Alberta to retool controversial farm safety changes

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Alberta's government will retool a bill that would overhaul workplace standards on farms in Canada's biggest cattle-producing province, its agriculture minister said on Tuesday, after protests by farmers and ranchers.

Alberta, the second-largest wheat-growing province, elected a leftist New Democratic Party government in May after 44 years of Conservative rule. It is planning sweeping changes for its 43,000 farms and ranches, saying that current standards offer workers less protection than elsewhere in Canada.

For example, the government currently cannot investigate on-farm worker accidents.

But the government has flubbed communication and is now considering amendments, Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier said in an interview. The government wants to clarify that children will still be able to work on family farms, he said.

"The intention was not to affect the family farm or the interaction of the children on the farm," Carlier said. "These amendments will ... give a certain level of comfort to farmers."

Hundreds of farmers demonstrated outside the Alberta legislature in Edmonton on Monday, while others blocked highway traffic with trucks and tractors. Farm groups say the main problem is a lack of meaningful consultation.

The issue drives to the heart of traditional farming on the Prairies, where children routinely help with farm work. Farms have also become larger, requiring the use of more hired workers.

A 10-year-old boy was killed last month in rural Alberta operating a forklift near his farm.

The government's first step, on Jan. 1, is to remove farm exemptions to existing employment standards, such as hours of work, overtime pay, restrictions on employing children and workers' ability to join unions.

The government will also require that farmers pay premiums toward compensation for workers hurt on the job.

Changes would apply to any worker, including unpaid neighbors and children of farmers who help during busy periods.

Existing regulations and codes will then be amended further by 2017 after consultations with farmers.

Matt Sawyer, who produces cattle and grain near Acme, Alberta, said the proposed changes will cost him time and money.

Injury compensation premiums for Sawyer's two seasonal workers would be an extra expense, and rigid working hours could bog down planting and harvesting, he said.

"You've got a very narrow window on a perishable commodity," Sawyer said, adding the bill "seems wild and not necessary."

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Alan Crosby

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