British Columbia

Piece rate for fruit pickers is fairer than hourly wage, B.C. fruit growers maintain

Fruit pickers are paid based on the volume of crops they pick instead of an hourly rate, but the province is looking at whether it should get rid of the pay method as it looks to increase minimum wages.

B.C.'s ministry of labour is reviewing piece-rate system, increasing all rates by 11.5%

Fruit pickers in B.C. are paid based on the volume they pick, by weight or number of bins of produce, instead of an hourly rate. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

As the B.C. government considers whether to scrap the piece-rate system of pay for the province's fruit pickers, growers are arguing that it gives their workers a much better wage.

Fruit pickers are paid based on the volume of crops they pick instead of an hourly rate, but the province is looking at whether it should get rid of the pay method as it looks to increase minimum wages.

The B.C. Ministry of Labour outlined plans for wage increases across five industries last week, including an 11.5 per cent increase in all piece rates beginning on Jan. 1, 2019, with further study to take place.

David Huxtable, a legal advocate with Together Against Poverty Society, said the concern with the current system is that workers can end up earning less than the minimum hourly wage.

"We see no reason why people who work as hard as agricultural workers ...should ever make less than the minimum wage," Huxtable said. "A piece-rate system on top of a minimum wage is fine."

Higher salaries

But Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association, said pay based on productivity often means a much higher take-home pay.

"The vast majority, almost all, would earn more than minimum wage," he told Michelle Eliot, the guest host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"Also, it helps the grower during a busy time of year in that the workers basically self-regulate their work," he said.

No decisions have yet been made about whether to keep or drop the piece-rate pay for agricultural workers.

"We are very thankful that the government is going to further study this rather than just terminate the piece-rate system," Lucas said.

"Not allowing any option for paying by productivity would be a very large adjustment for our industry and very disruptive."

Impact on farmers

Sukhpal Bal, a Kelowna orchardist who sits on the B.C. Agriculture Council and is president of the B.C. Cherry Growers Association, said piece-rates have increased steadily over the years — with about an 11 per cent increase in cherry-picking rates in the last three years, for example.

He doesn't agree with a blanket increase in rates across all crops, like the government's planned 11.5 per cent hike.

"There have been adjustments happening, it hasn't been one flat rate," he told Chris Walker, the host of CBC's Daybreak South.

Some cherry-pickers make around $20 an hour, Bal estimated, and experienced pickers are making up to $25 an hour under the current rates.

Bal said he's concerned farmers will not be able to absorb a sharp increase in rates in a single harvest season.

"When it moves up even a couple cents a pound, when you are harvesting hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruit, that's a big impact," he said.

"With a lot of the farm crops, it's very difficult to be able to pass that increase on to the consumer."

With files from The Early Edition and Daybreak South