Marjorie Griffin Cohen is introduced as chair of B.C.’s Fair Wages Commission by Labour Minister Harry Bains, B.C. legislature, Oct. 5, 2017. The retired economist is the founder of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a reliably union-friendly think tank. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

B.C. VIEWS: Eliminating efficiency for farm workers

Don’t worry, NDP says, the B.C. economy’s booming

B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains has announced the latest changes to the minimum wage, which take effect June 1.

The general minimum wage goes up by 11.5 per cent next week, as per the series of increases announced by Bains and Premier John Horgan in February in their “pathway to $15” declaration.

Bains announced that job categories that are paid less than the hourly minimum are also getting increases. They include liquor servers, resident care-takers, live-in camp counsellors and farm workers.

The $1.25 wage discount for liquor servers is being phased out with larger annual increases until 2021, the same year B.C. is supposed to reach the often-stated B.C. Federation of Labour goal of $15 an hour.

Years ago B.C. Fed slogan was “six bucks sucks,” and then $10 became the magic minimum. Now it’s $15. By 2021, I guarantee you that a $20 minimum wage will be urgently needed, regardless of inflation or economic conditions.

The surprise announcement was the wage for farm workers, and I had to press Bains to determine his true intention. For the past 40 years, B.C. farm workers have been paid by the amount they harvest, not by the hour. Although he wouldn’t quite confirm it yet, that is coming to an end next year.

Farm piece work rates are also going up 11.5 per cent, but that isn’t being imposed until next January. Raising it in the middle of a growing season “would be very disruptive, and we were advised that that would be not the right thing to do,” Bains said.

Assuming weather and enough willing workers, farmers get this year’s harvest in at the current rate, and then deal with the imposed higher wage on Jan. 1, 2019. That’s the same day as the new health care payroll tax takes effect.

When our Fraser Valley newsrooms began reporting on the impact of the “employers’ health tax” on large-scale greenhouse operations, NDP stalwarts scoffed on social media. A farm’s got 150 employees and an annual payroll over the limit of $500,000? That’s no small business!

The farms in question may well have 150 or more seasonal employees, performing a time-sensitive job under a system designed to reward productivity. Tree planters will also be familiar with this piece work system, which rewards efficiency and hard work.

But Bains appears convinced B.C. needs to get rid of that.

It’s the one recommendation of the NDP’s reliably left-wing Fair Wages Commission that is delayed until June 1, 2019. The plan is to eliminate the piece-work pay system for farm workers and require them to be paid by the hour.

When I questioned Bains about this, he made it clear this is only a delay. The commission needs more time to gather information first.

The Employment Standards Act has 15 piece work categories of farm produce, for cherries, apples and other Okanagan fruits to beans, berries and daffodils in the southwest. Quebec and Ontario also use a piece-work system for farm labour, with fewer categories.

I asked Bains about the double-whammy of payroll tax and an 11.5 per cent wage increase imposed on the same day. The commission consulted widely, and studied economic indicators, he replied. The commission figures B.C.’s economy will continue to grow for the next two years.

“The economy is booming, and they believe it will continue to boom,” Bains said.

If it does, despite U.S business tax cuts, threats to international trade, income tax increases, and industrial investment fleeing Canada, that’s going to tighten the job market for farmers.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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