Background: The Nature of Farming and Work in Agriculture (2016)

Agricultural workplaces are different.  The nature of farming presents a whole host of workplace circumstances that are not seen in the manufacturing or service sector. 

At its core, farming involves the management of biological processes and living organisms that are more often than not subject to the vagaries of climatic and environmental conditions.  Farming, attempts to control the growth of plants and animals under conditions that are rarely under a farmers’ control.  And to do this successfully, it requires a very flexible approach to managing people, and a flexible approach to matching human resources with the demands of food production.

Every year, climate and related soil conditions offer a very short window of opportunity to start a crop for optimum production.  This type of situation does not lend itself to a standard eight hour day.  Sometimes the days are four hours long, some days are 14 or 16 hours long.  This situation is certainly not by desire, but by necessity.  Similarly, the length and intensity of harvest varies, driven by a number of climatic or environmental conditions.

This reality of agricultural production and work has not changed, and will not likely change in the future.  While some of our agricultural products lend themselves to mechanization – for example much of our grains and oil seeds is mechanized and increasingly dairy, poultry, and swine have seen mechanization - others products absolutely require the gentle touch of a human hand and the judgment of a discerning mind. 

Mushrooms, greenhouse flowers, greenhouse vegetables, and field vegetable and fruit cannot be mechanized and require a significant labour force to carefully harvest, pack, and transport to market. 

Ontario farms produce hundreds of different kinds of agricultural products.  For the majority of these, we compete in a global marketplace – meaning, we must compete against imported products from producers in other countries that do not necessarily operate under the same high standard environmental and social legislation that we have here in Ontario. 

Employment Standards Act (ESA)

Since the inception of the Employment Standards Act, agriculture has functioned under a number of exemptions and special rules as do a number of other jurisdictions in both Canada and the United States.  The current exemptions and special rules for each of the four job categories found in agriculture reflect the differences between the farm workplace and the manufacturing workplace. 

These exemptions and special rules are directly linked to the fact that:

  • For the most part, farming is a seasonal occupation;
  • Farming frequently requires a large number of workers for a relatively short period of time;
  • We work with biological organisms with their own schedules and their own demands, and;
  • We work with perishable products that very quickly can become worthless and unacceptable for human consumption. 

The exemptions and special rules recognize the importance to society of our ability to produce food for our own needs, and that we have sovereignty of our food supply.

Farm employers not only compete on a global market, but we must compete in the local labour market to attract and retain workers.  Our farm employers find alternative ways to compensate for the irregular work hours and break periods we find in agricultural employment.  The flexibility granted to farm employers in the Act to be able to produce food for Ontario is returned to workers with a flexibility in work conditions, and is a significant driver for why people choose to work on Ontario's farms.

Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA)

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Ontario's farm employers are responsible to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the health and safety of workers.  Agricultural operations function under a set of guidelines that parallel the prescriptive regulations for industrial workplaces.  Operating under guidelines rather than prescriptive regulation does not in any way lessen an employers’ responsibility to protect the health and safety of a worker.  This arrangement simply recognizes that farm workplaces are not the same as industrial or manufacturing workplaces and that they need a flexible approach in to achieve health and safety objectives. 

Labour Issues Coordinating Committee

In its role as an advocate for Ontario's farm employers, the OFA works closely with the Labour Issues Coordinating Committee (LICC).  LICC is a farmer-driven coalition group representing the interests of Ontario employers in the agriculture and horticulture sector. It was formed in May 1991 in order to develop consensus among the farm employer community on employment and labour issues, and to represent their collective position to government.  The focus of LICC is on policy, legislative, regulatory, and program developments related to labour relations, employment standards, workplace safety and insurance (workers' compensation), occupational health and safety, and other related labour legislation.

For a printable version of OFA's position statement and background on Farm Labour, click here.

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