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Berry picking and harvesting pay rates reviewed

Strawberry picker Gurman Dhillon searches for ripe strawberries. More than 10,000 pickers are paid piece work rates, rather than minimum wage. - Evan Seal
Strawberry picker Gurman Dhillon searches for ripe strawberries. More than 10,000 pickers are paid piece work rates, rather than minimum wage.
— image credit: Evan Seal

Lower Mainland berry pickers and other harvesters are being promised a provincial review of minimum wages for farm work won’t leave them earning less than they do now.

More than 10,000 pickers are paid piece-work rates based on how much they harvest.

Charan Gill, spokesman for Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society, said it appears the province ordered the review in response to complaints of farmers and contractors after indications the minimum piece rates would rise in lockstep with a series of planned increases in B.C.’s minimum wage.

“I have no faith they will be fair to the workers,” Gill said, adding the consultant Victoria has hired speaks no Punjabi and therefore won’t get a fair sense of most harvesters’ concerns.

A labour ministry spokesman said the review may guide any further increases in the piece rates but reducing them is “not under consideration.”

Minimum pay rates for pickers range from 16 cents per pound for Brussels sprouts to 40 cents for blueberries, while tree fruit fetches $17 to $20 per large bin.

Those rates climbed 9.4 per cent in May at the same time B.C.’s minimum wage rose to $8.75 an hour.

Gill said the rates typically work out to the equivalent of $4 or $5 an hour.

“We are saying there should be a living wage for the farm workers,” he said.

Gill argues the province should eliminate piece rates entirely in favour of hourly wages.

That would also help reform the current system, which critics say is rife with abuse of workers and corrupt accounting practices.

Farm contractors routinely pay pickers at piece rates but then convert the amounts to hourly pay on the books as if minimum wages had been paid.

That lets companies record an artificially low number of hours and avoid violating employment standards when pickers work long hours during harvest season.

Hours are sometimes later adjusted back upward so workers are credited the minimum number of hours to qualify for employment insurance. Employers sometimes demand kickbacks for such revisions.

Federal tax auditors have prosecuted dozens of Lower Mainland pickers before for EI fraud over their role in such schemes, although most employers have avoided punishment.

“There should be a total survey of the farm industry to clean up this thing,” Gill said.

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said Ontario and Quebec both use a system that ensures a minimum wage for farm workers, while retaining a piece rate system that can result in pickers being paid more.

“You get paid no less than minimum wage,” he said, adding B.C. should follow suit.

“The minimum wage for farm workers should be the minimum wage for everybody else.”

Sinclair noted Mexican farm workers here on temporary work permits must be paid minimum wage, adding it’s bizarre that permanent B.C. residents get treated worse.

The consultant handling the review is to report back by the end of October, just before the minimum wage rises another 75 cents on Nov. 1.

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