The plight of migrant farm workers and their vulnerability to exploitation is a timeless story.Poor, uneducated and often unable to speak the language in the country they are working, they are untethered from families and without the supports and benefits provided to domestic workers — including some who may be working alongside them.It’s one reason that 170 Guatemalans successfully being awarded $133,632 in unpaid wages, vacation pay and wages by the B.C. Employment Standards director is news.The other is that they won against one of the province’s wealthiest and most powerful families. The Aquilinis’ blueberry farms is one of the largest. They also own a 1,500-acre cranberry bog, fish farms and apiaries. They are land developers and the owners of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, Rogers Arena as well as hotels, restaurants, golf courses and energy companies.They are politically active. Since 2005, Elections B.C. shows that they and their companies have donated just under $1.9 million to parties and candidates — primarily to the B.C. Liberals.Related
The fact that the Aquilinis, who operate Golden Eagle Blueberry Farm, didn’t appeal either the ruling, or contest a $53,690 fine from WorkSafeBC assessed last fall for using an unsafe bus to carry workers to the fields speaks for itself.Even though conditions may now be better than in the 1930s, when John Steinbeck’s Joad family struggled to survive, farm workers continue to face longstanding and unaddressed inequities.Among them, migrant workers here and in other countries are the most disadvantaged and in the most precarious of situations.In Canada, they are indentured labourers. They come on closed work permits with their jobs tied to specific employers. If they’re fired, they must go home. When the seasonal work is finished, they must go home.Unsurprisingly, few complain. Most are not only depending on the promised wages for the current year to feed their families, they want to be asked back in the coming years.Unlike other foreign worker programs, seasonal farm labourers have no path to permanent residency or citizenship. Yet, without them, the Canadian agri-food business — as well as the farm sectors in most developed countries — would collapse for lack of workers.For now, employers are not required to pay minimum wage, vacation pay, overtime or any other benefits. If they do provide workers with accommodation, that cost can be deducted from their pay.And, while workers must pay Canadian taxes, they are not eligible for employment insurance or Canada Pension Plan.It is to the Aquilinis’ credit that they did pay the Guatemalans minimum wage. But what they unsuccessfully argued before the director of Employment Standards is that the contract didn’t require them to pay for a minimum of 40 hours’ worth of work each week. The director ruled that they did.
Despite a recommendation from the Fair Wage Commission last year that all farm workers be paid the minimum wage, British Columbia’s NDP government declined to do that. It left in place a piece rate for selected crops.“There is no logical explanation for why some hand-harvested crops such as cabbage, lettuce, spinach, carrots, are covered by the minimum wage provisions, and others are covered by the minimum piece-rate provision,” the commission’s report said.There are no rules for determining what the rates should be or when they ought to be increased. There is also no correlation between increases to the minimum hourly wage and the minimum piece rates.So, while the minimum wage increased 106.5 per cent between 1992 and 2018, the piece rate increases averaged only 61.8 per cent, with wide variances for different crops. Blueberries piece rate, for example, rose 48.5 per cent during that period, while the rate for beans rose 72.7 per cent.On Thursday, the labour ministry announced that piece rates rose 11.5 per cent in January, while the minimum wage will increase 9.5 per cent to $13.85 on June 1.Employers argue that good pickers already earn more than the minimum wage. They also say that the piece rate makes it possible for producers to hire elderly workers — predominately Indo-Canadian women — and less-experienced workers who might not be able to find other employment.Conversely, workers and their advocates say that the piecework rate exploits vulnerable elderly workers especially, since they sometimes work alongside people hired through the agricultural worker program who do get the minimum wage.They also say that piecework puts pressure on employees to work faster without taking the necessary safety precautions.But the halcyon days for employers are coming to an end.In 2014, an estimated 26,400 farm jobs went unfilled at a cost of $1.5 billion, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council. By 2025, it forecasts that 114,000 agri-food jobs will be vacant.In March, the federal government announced a three-year pilot project that will put 2,750 foreign workers on the path to becoming Canadians. But it applies only to permanent, full-time jobs and to applicants who meet all of the other immigration requirements, including language skills.It won’t help migrant workers, who fill roughly half the seasonal jobs in British Columbia.Still, with the labour gap widening every year, farm workers may finally get their due.Related
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