by Daniel Tseghay
Rankandfile.ca’s BC correspondent
Last week, British Columbia’s Liberal government announced it would raise the minimum wage in two stages. From the current minimum wage of $10.45 – the lowest in Canada – the government will increase it to $10.85 in September of 2016, and then to $11.25 the following September. This increase will benefit around 93,700 people in the province who find themselves working well below the poverty line.
Despite the increases, one group of workers will remain left out. Farm workers who hand harvest fruits and vegetables in the province earn a piece rate, or a wage that depends on the volume they pick, rather than a set hourly wage. The provincial government has not spelled out what an increase on the piece rate would look like.
What we do know is that the piece rate has not kept pace with the minimum wage. Between 2001 and 2015, the minimum wage increased by 30.6 percent while piece rates increased by just 7.5 percent.
“It’s pretty insignificant for farm workers paid on the piece rate system,” says David Fairey, co-chair of the B.C. Employment Standards Coalition, in an interview with Rankandfile.ca. “In the case of blueberries if they get the proportional increase of 3.8 percent – if you get that increase on 40 cents a pound, their piece rate goes up by 1.5 cents per pound. In the case of cherries the rate is 23 cents a pound. It would go up by less than a cent per pound.”
“The increase is probably about a third to a half of the increase in cost of living in that time period,” said Fairey.
In 2001, amendments to B.C.’s Employment Standards Act meant farm workers lost overtime pay. A 2008 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) report, “Cultivating Farmworkers’ Rights: Ending the Exploitation of Immigrant and Migrant Farmworkers in BC”, calculated that the piece rate earns farmworkers an average of just over $5 per hour.
These low wages, loss of overtime and holiday pay, are the product of coordination between the provincial government and the agricultural industry. When the provincial government was challenged on the piece rate system, they committed to a study.
However, as Fairey writes in a report entitled “Minimum Wages for Hand Harvesting Farm Workers Frozen Again by Employer Friendly BC Government”, the government study was distorted and misled:
The minimum piece rate system study was conducted by private sector agricultural consultants…[T]he researchers conducted a voluntary survey of a very small number of farm owners in each product sector…[B]ased on this study, the government decided that not only is the minimum piece rate system more beneficial to farm workers than a minimum hourly wage without the consultants having surveyed or consulted a single farm workers, and without listening to farm worker advocacy groups that called for scraping the system, it decided that the piece rates last adjusted on May 1, 2011 should be frozen indefinitely. This means that while the minimum wage for all other BC workers will have increased on May 1, 2012 by 28.13% since 2001, for fruit, berry and vegetable hand harvesters their minimum piece rate wages will have increased by only 9.4% – two thirds less than the general minimum wage! This constitutes nothing less than a subsidy to fruit and vegetable farm operators at the expense of low waged farm workers.
Piece rate vs living wage
Because hand harvesting is seasonal work, these workers largely rely on Employment Insurance during the off-season. But because they must work a minimum of 910 hours in the first season and 700 hours in following ones, they are working long hours, often while injured.
While migrant workers employed in Canada under the Temporary Worker Program and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have wage rates guaranteed in their contracts, the lowest paid workers are often immigrants. And while they are free to find employment elsewhere, they are still bound to an industry and habitually refuses to pay living wages. Many hand harvesters are elderly and South Asian who work in the Fraser Valley, or the Okanagan.
“On average, South Asian immigrant farmworkers were older, married women who came from India as Family Class immigrants and now held Canadian citizenship (65 per cent) or permanent residence (35 per cent),” writes the author of a November, 2015 CCPA report, “Citizenship and Precarious Labour in Canadian Agriculture”.
“Farmworkers are no different than other workers,” Fairey says. If workers in other industries are earning a minimum wage, and are seeing a wage increase, then all workers, hand harvesters included, should too. It is time for a meaningful review of agricultural employment and the piece rate system in British Columbia. This means a comprehensive discussion about living wages in all sectors of the economy.