British Columbia

Shades of Steinbeck: Boy, 11, working on B.C. farm exposes child labour issues, says advocate

An advocate for British Columbia's agricultural workers says a recent Employment Standards Tribunal decision highlights how child labour is still prevalent in the province's farming sector.

Farm owner appealed fine after telling inspectors he didn't think the boy was working

Children working alongside their parents in B.C. is a common issue, says a farm workers' advocate. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

The idea of children working in a hot, dusty field picking berries seems better suited to a Steinbeck novel than the blueberry farms of Metro Vancouver — as it should be. 

But an advocate for British Columbia's agricultural workers says a recent Employment Standards Tribunal decision highlights how child labour is still prevalent in the province's farming sector. 

"It's very common in this industry," said Charan Gill, CEO of the Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society and president of the Canadian Farmworkers' Union.

"We've known it for many, many years. Enforcement is lacking."

According to a spokesman with the province's Labour Ministry, there were six contraventions of B.C.'s child labour laws from 2011 to 2015 — all of them in the agricultural sector. 

Like father, like son

The tribunal decision, issued on Nov. 2, 2016, stems from an appeal from Colebrook Farms owner Sundeep Kajla, who was fined $3,515 for contravening B.C.'s child employment laws. 

The incident took place at the farm on June 28, 2016 — the first week of summer vacation.

Members of the province's Agriculture Compliance Team arrived at the blueberry farm in Surrey to find an 11-year-old boy working alongside his father.

According to the provincial government, over the last four years, all six contraventions of B.C.'s child labour laws were in the agricultural sector. (Erik White/CBC )

The decision says that when the team asked the berry picker about his son, he told them he couldn't get a babysitter that day so had brought him along.

Children under 12 can work in B.C., but employers must have written permission from the provincial director of employment standards.

The worker was also working alongside his other two children, aged 15 and 14, as well as his 14-year-old niece. Their names have not been released because the children are underage. 

'Laying around and eating berries'

According to the decision, the farm owner told the inspectors "it was 'debatable' whether the child was working and suggested he was just accompanying his father, laying around and eating berries."

But the inspecting team noted they had seen the child diligently working alongside his father, putting berries in his bucket. 

The decision then states that Kajla, the owner, said he didn't know the youngest child was at the farm because he employed "a lot of transient workers" and he didn't know he needed written permission from anyone to employ a child under the age of 12. 

The owner of Colebrook Farms, a blueberry farm in Surrey, B.C., denies hiring an 11-year-old child on his farm. (Yvon Theriault/Radio Canada)

Kajla was later issued the $3,515 fine — a combination of administrative penalties and unpaid wages for the child. He appealed the fine, again saying he didn't know the child had been working on his farm. 

The appeal was dismissed. 

CBC News contacted Kajla, but he refused to comment. He said the matter was still being resolved. 

'All the politicians know this'

Gill said children working on farms in B.C. is a long-standing issue. He co-authored a book on the subject in 1995 and says he still sees the same problem today as he did in the '70s. 

Farm workers advocate Charan Gill says B.C. needs to better enforce its child labour laws in the province's agricultural sector. (PICS)

He said the problem is exacerbated by a combination of a tradition of children working alongside their parents on family farms to the cost of childcare for berry pickers, many of them temporary workers who labour long hours with little pay. 

"Those children have nowhere to go during summer," Gill said. 

One solution he sees is childcare support for agricultural workers. But he also thinks there's a need for better enforcement from the province.

"All the politicians know this, what's happening on the farms. But there's not a will to change those things yet," he said. 

'Why worry about them?'

But the province's Labour Ministry says regulations are in place for dealing with children at work, and employers can be fined up to $10,000.

It says teams like the one that discovered the 11-year-old at work at Colebrook Farms last summer make unannounced visits to farms all the time.

"In 2016 alone, the Agriculture Compliance Team inspected 34 farms and interviewed 224 farm workers," said the ministry in a written statement. 

For Gill, that's not enough. He says more needs to be done to support farm workers,.

"[Politicians] think foreign workers, because they're immigrants — most of them Chinese or Punjabi folks — why worry about them? They're lucky to have payment," he said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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