Work without workers: Defining ‘worker’ and ‘workplace’ under Alberta farm OHS laws

Authors: Emily Reid-Musson*, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Ellen MacEachen, University of Waterloo, Lars Hallstrom, University of Alberta, Mary Beckie, University of Alberta
Topics: Economic Geography, Geographic Theory, Social Geography
Keywords: labour geography; agriculture; workplace health and safety; law
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 38
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


New agricultural labour laws introduced in Alberta, Canada in 2016 and again in 2020 changed the scope of workplace health and safety legislation as it applied to primary agriculture, first extending labour rights and protections to agricultural workers, and subsequently curtailing those protections on family-only farms and small farms with 5 full-time employees or less. At each turn, the changing legislation has redefined ‘worker’ and ‘workplace’ in primary agriculture, broadly connecting the urgent issue of farm labour rights to ontological questions within labour geography. This research examines experiences of workplace health and safety risk and regulation in agriculture, based on in-depth interviews conducted in Alberta, Canada in 2019 and 2020 with farm operators and their family members, farm employees, farm commodity groups, and regulators. The analysis discusses work subjectivities in agriculture in relation to work within the ‘home’, the wider farm, and off-farm employment. Hard work is supremely valued in the sector, whereas formal workplace protections are strongly resisted. We explore methodological challenges of doing labour geography research ‘beyond the core’ in contexts where cultural and social conservatism inflects work subjectivities and negotiations over the law of work. 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 negotiation that have ongoing, significant impacts for rights-claiming and rights-making processes.

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