Province reviews pickers’ pay

Their work is long and their compensation is scant, roughly 40 cents a pound

Workers on Dhuga Farm including owner Gian Dhuga (front right) pick blueberries Thursday afternoon.

Workers on Dhuga Farm including owner Gian Dhuga (front right) pick blueberries Thursday afternoon.

They are a familiar sight in rural Pitt Meadows this time of year. When the sun is hot and the blueberry crop is ready to harvest, they spread amongst the low bushes, filling their trays with plump berries, the first step on the local cash crop’s trip to market.

Their work is long and their compensation is scant, roughly 40 cents a pound. In the peak of the season, it is not uncommon for the berry harvesters to spend 10 to 12 hours a day in the fields.

Charan Gill is the spokesperson and co-founder of the B.C. Farmworkers’ Union, an advocacy group for the close to 10,000 farm workers across the province, and says current practices on most blueberry farms resemble a feudal system at best, with the majority of workers making below minimum wage, around $4 to $5 per hour on average.

“In peak season, they might be lucky to make minimum wage, but that’s only two weeks long,” he says. “Every worker in this province gets at least minimum wage, except for farm workers. There’s no stat holidays, no overtime.”

However, there may be some hope for berry pickers.

This week, the B.C. Ministry of Labour launched a review of the “piece rates” berry pickers are paid per pound, and has hired a consulting firm to conduct the work.

“We’re targeting this review around three distinct options for the future of piece rates,” said labour minister Stephanie Cadieux. “The information we’re gathering will help us make a decision about whether the piece rates will receive proportionate increases corresponding to the next two scheduled increases in the minimum wage, whether some other adjustment should be made, or whether no further changes are required at this time.”

In May, all piece rates for hand harvesters were increased by more than nine per cent to correspond to the increase in the minimum wage.

“At this time, the role of our contractor is to gather facts and information that will enable government to make decisions on future adjustments to piece rates,” Cadieux said. “Once we have gathered this information and consulted with stakeholders, we will review all of the information and make a decision on the future structure of the piece rate system.”

Cadieux said the review will be completed later this year.

While Cadieux said a reduction in piece rates isn’t being considered, Gill isn’t optimistic workers will see another increase.

“It is all for show,” he says. “The government allows the farm owners and labour contractors to take advantage of the workers.”

Gill said he favours a move to a minimum wage for farm workers. Currently, farm workers from foreign countries who come to B.C. under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program to work are guaranteed at least minimum wage. However, farm workers residing in Canada are not.

“There needs to be equitable treatment for all workers in this province, and not a different standard for farm workers,” said Gill.

Should the province adopt a minimum wage for farm workers – which is not being considered by the piece rate review – the cost of producing will go up, putting more of a squeeze on farm owner’s already tight margins, according to Pitt Meadows blueberry farmer Sarj Basra.

“It will slowly sink all of us farmers,” he says. “Anytime you have extra costs, it makes it harder to do business. We have to pay what we have to pay to get the crop out of the fields, and just ‘cause our costs go up, doesn’t mean the price for blueberries goes up.”

DSB Blueberries, which Basra owns and operates, employs 20 to 25 berry pickers during the harvest. He said it’s in a farmer’s best interest to treat farm workers well and pay them competitively.

“The workers have the power,” he said. “We rely on them to get our crops out. We have to do what they say.”

Gill paints a very different picture, however, and compares the berry pickers’ situation, the vast majority of whom are recent immigrants from the Indian state of Punjab, to that of the indentured Chinese workers responsible building Canada’s railroads.

Some labour contractors require kickbacks from workers, while others will hold back hours to prevent workers from claiming Employment Insurance, Gill alleges.

“The government allows the farm owners and the labour contractors to take advantage of these people,” he said. “It’s discriminatory.”

Rhonda Driediger roundly dismisses most of Gill’s claims. She owns and operates 160 acres of berry farms in Langley and is co-chair of the B.C. Agricultural Council’s labour committee.

The berry pickers at her farm are fairly compensated under the current piece rates, and rarely do they ever make less than minimum wage, she contends.

“Maybe on a slow day a person might pick that, but on average they are making minimum wage or above,” Driediger said. Her best strawberry-picker makes more than $480 on a good day, she added.

“But she can out-pick everyone two-to-one.”

Berry pickers are in demand, she added, and they won’t being doing the work unless they were being paid and treated fairly.

“These people have a lot of alternatives,” she said. “They don’t have to be picking berries.”

In 2006 and 2007, the economy in B.C. was booming, leading to labour shortages for many farms.

“I can’t survive without my pickers,” she said.

B.C. piece rates are especially competitive when compared with the rates charged south of the border in Washington State, where piece rates range from 17 to 21 cents per pound.

She would like to see more flexibility built into the piece rates paid to farm workers based on market prices, with a greater variance by commodity, and with more incentives for high-volume pickers.

Driediger is disappointed, however, that a reduction in piece rates isn’t being considered by the labour ministry’s review.

“I don’t know how they could say that until they finish conducting the review,” Driediger said. “Everything should be on the table.”

Cadieux said there will be extensive consultation with farmers and workers before the review is completed.

However, Gill doubts the consultants will have any meaningful interaction with the berry workers out in the fields.

“The season is almost over, and they will be gone,” he said. “The majority don’t even speak English, so I don’t really see that happening.”

 

Minimum piece rate for B.C. farm workers

Apples: $17.06/ bin (27.1 cu. ft.)

Apricots:$19.62/ 1/2 bin (13.7 cu. ft.)

Beans: $0.234/ pound

Blueberries: $0.396/ pound

Brussels sprout: $ 0.163/ pound

Cherries: $0.224/ pound

Grapes:$18.13/ 1/2 bin (13.7 cu. ft.)

Mushrooms:$0.235/ pound

Peaches: $18.13/ 1/2 bin (12.6 cu. ft.)

Pears: $19.21/ bin (27.1 cu. ft.)

Peas: $0.292/ pound

Prune plums: $19.21/ 1/2 bin (13.7 cu. ft.)

Raspberries: $0.357/ pound

Strawberries:$0.343/ pound

Daffodils: $0.137/ bunch (10 stems)

Source: B.C. Ministry of Labour