Unjust treatment of farm workers should end

May 22, 2015

On September 15, the BC government will increase the general minimum wage by a measly 20 cents, from $10.25 to $10.45, and apply a 2% 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% since 2001, the hand harvester minimum piece rates will have increased by only 7.5%. Ironically, during this time period food prices in BC will have increased by more than 33%, 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% in lieu of statutory holiday pay, were reduced by 3.9%.

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% 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%, no increase was provided for farm worker minimum piece rates.

To put the proposed September 2015 2% increase in perspective, for the majority of fruits, berries and vegetables, where the piece rates are based on weight, a 2% 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.

Gurpreet Pabla is a legal advocate with the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society. David Fairey is a labour economist, co-chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition, and a research associate with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.