BC government decision to continue excluding farm workers from minimum wage protection very disappointing

April 19, 2018

Vancouver — Although there are positive elements to today’s BC government announcement in response to the second report of the Fair Wages Commission, the government’s rejection of the recommendation to include farm workers in the basic minimum wage is extremely frustrating, says the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

The government accepted the Commission’s (FWC) recommendation with respect to liquor servers, resident caretakers, live-in camp leaders and live-in home support workers who with piece-rate farm workers are euphemistically known as “alternate wage earners.” 

The CCPA is particularly pleased that the lower minimum wage for liquor servers will be phased out although the timeline for this is unnecessarily slow. Alberta eliminated its lower liquor server wage in a year and a half.  

However, the government chose to reject the FWC’s recommendations to bring farm workers under minimum wage protection. The FWC recommended a 15 per cent increase to all piece rates this year followed by full minimum wage coverage for all farm workers in 2019. Instead, the government is implementing a smaller increase in piece rates, delayed until June 2019, and is deferring a decision on ending the farm worker exclusion from minimum wage protection pending “further study to take place.” 

“This is very disappointing,” says CCPA-BC Director Seth Klein. 

“Many farm workers who are paid piece rates, especially those working in the Fraser Valley, are older immigrant women who often earn less than minimum wage doing very hard work. That these workers should be denied the basic entitlements of most workers cannot be justified. This decision seems to be acquiescing to the farm owners lobby and is not what one would expect from a government that purports to be concerned for the well-being of vulnerable workers, ” he added. 

“This delay pending ‘further study’ feels like a real cop-out,” Klein said. “The industry was already given a chance to table evidence and arguments to the FWC, and the FWC commissioned a report on the farm worker exclusion from noted employment standards expert Mark Thompson. 

“Why should we continue to make exceptions to this basic floor? Even if a particular subset of the agriculture industry claimed this exception was necessary, what does it mean to accept a business model that relies upon paying mostly women workers poverty wages?” he asked. 

Listening to the advice of the FWC was supposed to be part of the BC NDP-Green confidence and supply agreement as was a commitment to “improve fairness for workers.”   

Backgrounder below: an excerpt from the CCPA’s November submission to the Fair Wage Commission regarding minimum wage exclusions. 

For further information, please call Jean Kavanagh at 604-802-5729.

 

BACKGROUNDER 

Here is what the CCPA said on the subject of minimum wage exclusions in its November 2017 submission to the Fair Wages Commission. 

Recommendations on minimum wage exemptions and special rates 

We believe that all workers, without exception, should earn at least the general minimum wage. To ensure that this happens, we recommend simplifying the law by eliminating all current exemptions/special rates from the general minimum wage and mandating a single minimum wage that applies to all workers. As an additional benefit, eliminating exemptions will make administering and enforcing the new minimum wage legislation easier. 

Farmworkers1

The agriculture industry has historically argued that the unique and seasonal nature of work in this sector—specifically hand-harvesting crops—makes minimum wages impractical and instead the industry has been allowed to use piece rates for remuneration by weight or volume of crops picked. However, this wage structure is unfair to workers and there is little evidence that it is necessary given the emerging realities within the BC agricultural sector. 

  • While workers can earn more than the minimum wage at the height of the picking season, in less “fruitful” months, workers often earn less than the minimum wage, as we documented in our 2008 report Cultivating Farmworker Rights.
  • Recent increases in piece rates have not kept up with the general minimum wage. Between 2001 and 2017, BC’s minimum wage increased by 42 per cent while piece rates increased by just 16 per cent.
  • In recent years, the industry has shifted a large share of production to agricultural greenhouses that operate year-round. These greenhouses are effectively no different from factories in employment terms and work done in them is not paid by the piece rate.
  • Also in recent years, a growing share of farmworkers (roughly half) are migrants employed as temporary workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. These SAWP workers must legally be paid the minimum wage. If the industry can make minimum wage function for these workers, the same should be possible for all workers. 

Liquor Servers 

Very few provinces have a lower minimum wage for liquor servers. BC’s liquor server wage of $10.10/hour is currently tied with Ontario for second lowest in Canada. Only Quebec pays less to workers who receive tips.  Alberta eliminated its liquor server wage as of October 1, 2016. The Ontario Changing Workplaces review concluded that the liquor server wage is “an anachronism” and recommended phasing it out (a recommendation the Ontario provincial government has thus far not implemented). 

We recommend eliminating the lower liquor server wage. 

A lower minimum wage for liquor servers is unfair because:

  • Tips in many eating and drinking establishments are often pooled for all employees (both the servers and non-servers).
  • While tip income can be quite high in some high-end establishments, in many regular bars and restaurants, tips are not considerable, particularly during off-hours. More importantly, tipping is at the discretion of the customer and is not guaranteed to the employees. 

The lower liquor server minimum wage also has gendered implications because 81 per cent of food and beverage servers in our province are women. Recent research found that depending on tips leaves workers vulnerable to sexual harassment and sexualized behavior from customers because if servers speak up against customers, they risk losing a tip. The promise of earning higher tips is what drives employers to implement discriminatory gender-based dress codes.2

 

Notes

1. For more on this subject, see two CCPA-BC reports: the 2015 report by Otero and Preibisch Citizenship and Precarious Labour in Canadian Agriculture: http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/citizenship-and-precarious-labour-canadian-agriculture; and our 2008 report by Fairey et al Cultivating Farmworker Rightshttp://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/cultivating-farmworker-rights

2. For more on these gender implications, see this analysis by David Fairey and Kaitlyn Matulewicz: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/reliance-tipping-creates-inequity-and-leaves-workers-vulnerable; and this excellent Tyee Series by Rachel Sanders: https://thetyee.ca/Series/2017/02/07/Slaves-To-Tips/