Gurpreet Pabla and David Fairey: Unjust treatment of B.C. farm workers should end

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      By Gurpreet Pabla and David Fairey

      On September 15, the B.C. government will increase the general minimum wage by a measly 20 cents, from $10.25 to $10.45, and apply a two percent increase to the minimum piece rates for hand-harvested crops.

      Under the Employment Standards Act, farm workers who harvest fruits, berries, and certain vegetables (peas, beans, and Brussels sprouts) are not entitled to receive the minimum hourly wage. Instead, the government sets minimum piece rates based on the volume or weight of produce.

      For farm workers under the piece rate system, this will be just the second increase since November 2001. On September 15, while the general minimum wage will have increased by 30.6 percent since 2001, the hand harvester minimum piece rates will have increased by only 7.5 percent. Ironically, during this time period food prices in B.C. will have increased by more than 33 percent, according to Statistics Canada’s Consumer Price Index.

      This shoddy treatment of some of the lowest paid and most precariously employed workers in the province is partly because between 2001 and 2003 the government bowed to pressure from the agricultural industry and made sweeping changes to the Employment Standards Act. These changes stripped farm workers of several important rights and benefits, including entitlement to statutory holiday and overtime pay, and reduced their rights to minimum daily hours of pay. The minimum piece rates for the hand harvesting of crops, which previously included an adjustment of 3.9 percent in lieu of statutory holiday pay, were reduced by 3.9 percent.

      Then, just prior to the November 2011 minimum wage increase, the fruit, berry, and vegetable farm lobby successfully pressured the government again not to increase the minimum piece rates by the 8.6 percent that the general minimum wage was to be increased by. And then again on May 1, 2012, when the general minimum hourly wage was increased by 7.9 percent, no increase was provided for farm worker minimum piece rates.

      To put the proposed September 2015 two percent increase in perspective, for the majority of fruits, berries, and vegetables, where the piece rates are based on weight, a two percent increase translates into less than one cent per pound. For example, the piece rate for raspberries will go from 35.7 cents to 36.4 cents per pound. This is unconscionable.

      The simplest and fairest solution is to give farm workers who harvest fruits, berries, and vegetables the same minimum hourly wage as all other workers in the province, and scrap the minimum piece rate system. If farm owners wanted to maximize the productivity of farm workers they would be free to offer productivity bonuses, as long as the hourly rate of pay was no less than the general minimum wage.

      It is obvious that unless the government’s treatment of farm workers under the Employment Standards Act changes dramatically, income inequality for the lowest paid British Columbians will continue to increase.




      May 4, 2015 at 8:47pm

      It is interesting to note that shortly after all these pro-industry changes were made to the ESA, the BC government made another decision which would ensure workers had little power to fight back. In 2004 BC signed on to SAWP, Canada's original TFWP for farms, which allowed farm owners access to indentured foreign labour (visa is tied to the employer) with little oversight, and for barely over minimum wage. This year the SAWP wage is set at $10.49/hour. I want you to look on WorkBC or Job Bank, where these jobs must be advertised (for only 2 weeks), and see how many pay exactly $10.49/hour, despite "crippling labour shortages" in agriculture.
      When you think about the changes to the Employment Standards Act, followed up shortly by the influx of temporary foreign workers into this industry, you wonder whether this was intentional. It is as though the government and industry were in collusion, to push down wages and working condition so low compared to other jobs, in order to create an artificial labour shortage, which they could then use to justify the entry of TFW onto BC farms, thus ensuring that these low wages would then become the new status quo. And they have, as evidenced by all the $10.49's and $10.50's you see out there.
      The fact is with SAWP, if BC farm workers don't want to work 80 hour weeks with no breaks, no overtime, for barely over minimum wage, they will just get a Mexican to do it. And now with the creation of the "Ag stream" of the TFWP, if the Mexican won't do it there is always a Guatemalan (I'm looking at you Sunselect), a Filipino...
      I hope you can all see that as long as growers can bring in unlimited indentured labour through TFW and SAWP, at wages fixed by the government(!), there will be NO upward pressure on wages in these jobs. There will be no increase in piece rate. Again if you won't do it a TFW will, and if they won't do it, they can be replaced, because as my former employer once told me "they (the Mexican government) have a list of guys waiting in Mexico, ready to go (to Canada). We can get a different guy (replacement) right away if we need to". Which means of course, they have guys waiting, ready to replace YOU.


      Jun 26, 2015 at 9:43am

      most of them are either working illegally as non Canadians or are collecting EI, welfare, WCB or the like while getting paid cash for the farm work. Find a worthwhile cause.

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