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Work without workers: Legal-ontological and lived ambiguities in definitions of ‘worker’ and ‘workplace’ in the industrial agricultural context in Canada

Authors: Emily Reid-Musson*, University of Waterloo, Mary Beckie, University of Alberta, Ellen MacEachen, University of Waterloo, Lars Hallstrom, University of Alberta, Meaghan Mechler, University of Guelph
Topics: Economic Geography, Gender, Legal Geography
Keywords: family farms; labor geography; ontology; workplace health and safety
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Family farms continue to be the foundation of primary agricultural production in Canada, amidst the consolidation and industrialization of the industry. Spouses and youth continue to be important sources of labour for farms, supplemented by other forms of unwaged and waged labour. Under most provincial workplace laws in Canada, family farm operations are not considered ‘workplaces’ unless employees are present on the worksite. Canadian farmer and commodity groups have strongly resisted attempts by regulators to categorize family farm members (such as spouses and children) as ‘workers’ under extant workplace safety, employment standards, and collective bargaining legislation. New laws introduced in Alberta, Canada in 2016 changed the scope of workplace health and safety legislation from a sector-wide agricultural exemption to a ‘family worker’ agricultural exemption. While the laws successfully extended protective work legislation to cover farm employees, the laws also introduced new ambiguities as to definitions of ‘worker’ and ‘workplace’ in farming. Based on in-depth interviews conducted in Alberta, Canada, this research examines these ambiguities through the perspectives of farm operators and their family members, farm employees, farm commodity groups, and regulators, based on our research. The analysis broadly suggests that legal-ontological questions about the subjects and spaces of work are worthy of investigation in labour geography because they remain significant sites of political struggle and lived negotiation that have ongoing, significant impacts for rights-claiming and rights-making processes.

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