Penticton Herald

This Labour Day, fruit pickers in B.C. may be denied minimum wage


While many British Columbians and visitors enjoy late summer produce like apples, peaches and plums this Labour Day weekend, the workers who pick these crops generally do not receive statutory holiday pay and many work for less than minimum wage.

The laws that govern conditions for agricultur­al workers make them vulnerable and exploitabl­e, but the provincial government could easily change these laws to help ensure a dignified agricultur­al economy.

Pickers are typically paid a “piece-rate wage” according to how much they pick and government regulation­s set minimum piece rates for 15 crops. Employers have the discretion to pay either minimum piece rates or the minimum hourly wage. Unlike other B.C. workers, pickers are excluded from Employment Standards Act protection­s that guarantee the minimum hourly wage, which is now $13.85 per hour. B.C. is the only jurisdicti­on in North America that permits piece rates without ensuring workers earn at least the hourly minimum wage.

In 1981 (when the minimum wage applied to agricultur­e), the B.C. government establishe­d the piece rate as an olive branch to some growers. Piece rates are an incentive for workers to harvest quickly and reduce growers’ need to monitor productivi­ty in the field. Government records shed little light on how piece rate changes are determined. Over the past ten years, the general hourly minimum wage has increased 73%, but minimum piece rates have increased only 35% (not accounting for inflation).

When the crop is bountiful, a piece rate can be lucrative for manually skilled workers, especially those who can easily leave a cherry orchard with slim pickings and find a better-paying farm. But a piece rate can be wearisome outside of peak harvest times.

A prime example is older immigrant agricultur­al workers in the Fraser Valley.

These workers tend to be hired through middle-person labour contractor­s and don’t choose where they work. Because of the pressure to earn enough to qualify for Employment Insurance for winter, piece rates can push people to work long hours at an intense pace. Such a pace can be particular­ly dangerous for these older workers.

Faced with these facts, the government­appointed Fair Wages Commission unanimousl­y recommende­d increasing piece rates 15% on June 1, 2018 and abolishing them entirely on June 1, 2019. Labour Minister Harry Bains accepted almost all of the Commission’s recommenda­tions but these, including the schedule for implementi­ng the $15 minimum wage.

He retained the piece rate system with the proviso that workers should “continue to make a fair wage” and said more research was needed. He commission­ed agricultur­al economist Karen Taylor to study the issue. Her report was completed early this year but has not been made public despite a Freedom of Informatio­n request we filed.

More delays and research won’t change the fact that ensuring minimum wage protection­s for all workers is the right thing to do even if politicall­y unpopular with employers who would prefer to pay a sub-minimum wage.

The Fair Wages Commission’s recommenda­tions include that workers can continue to receive piece rates as long as they earn at least the hourly minimum wage. If the labour minister implemente­d the recommenda­tions, the Employment Standards Act could be amended so that all agricultur­al workers receive the general hourly minimum wage.

Anelyse Weiler is Professor of Sociology at Okanagan College and a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto. Mark Thompson, a member of the Order of Canada, is professor emeritus, University of British Columbia and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternativ­es, B.C. Office. David Fairey is a labour economist and co-chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition.

Please contact Jean Kavanagh with any questions by calling 604-802-5729, or email jean@policyalte­

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada