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

Penticton Herald - - LABOUR DAY - By ANELYSE WEILER, MARK THOMP­SON AND DAVID FAIREY

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 [email protected]­i­cyal­ter­na­tives.ca.

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