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New Farm Worker Abuses Uncovered

Widespread violations stem from changed laws, slashed inspections, says BC Fed report.

Scott Deveau 23 Sep
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The BC Federation of Labour is set to release a report today accusing the provincial government and the Employment Standards Branch of turning a blind-eye to the mass exploitation of farm labourers in the Fraser Valley.

The author of the report Graeme Moore, a labour consultant for the BC Fed and a former program advisor at the standards branch, reports that after years of coordinated enforcement, the provincial government has relaxed its field visits and labour laws to a point where the Fraser Valley is once again ripe with "endemic" corruption.

The fruit growers, however, say it's actually they who are being exploited. In an industry run on a per-pound basis, growers say the workers leverage a dwindling labour market to raise picking rates to a point that is crippling the industry.

Industry has history of corruption

Despite the difference of opinion, what is clear is that in the 10 years since the provincial government revealed rampant corruption in the $100 million industry, business has never been the same. In 1994, the provincial government commissioned the Thompson Report, the last comprehensive review of employment standards in the province. Among its findings, were a massive amount of labour violations in the fruit farm industry. The business, primarily run within the Indo-Canadian community, is operated by contractors hired by growers to provide hand harvesters when needed. Pickers were typically middle-aged or older men, recently immigrated under Canada's family reunification program, who possessed a limited grasp of English and their rights.  When the report came back, the province found that 80 per cent of hand harvesters were forced to return some, if not, all of their wages to contractors illegally. It also discovered many were paid less than the minimum piece rate and that those who resided at their work were only being paid for about eight hours, five days a week but working 10 hours per day, seven days a week.

Past war on violators bore fruit

The violations were extensive. But perhaps the most rampant example, Moore said, was that growers were being paid with a fake record of employment instead of wages, so pickers could then collect employment insurance in the fall, winter, and spring. The fake records would say the pickers contributed to EI for the necessary 13 weeks to reap full benefits for 36 weeks.

"All too often and for all too long hand harvesters were paid by bogus records of employment," Moore said. "Essentially, the crop was being paid for by EI contributors."  A task force called the Agriculture Compliance Team was formed - a joint effort between Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, Canada Custom and Revenue Agency and the standards branch.

From 1997 to 2001 ACT was out in the Valley's fields educating workers and issuing fines. It found 112 labour contractors operating either without a license or with more employees than their license allowed. It registered 187 wage complaints and recovered more than $330,000 of those wages for pickers. The HRSDC prevented nearly $5 million in EI fraud and the federal government recouped more than $4 million in unpaid taxes and EI and pension contributions.

By 2001, the number of contractors in non-compliance had been reduced to 34 per cent from 100 per cent just four years before.

"We broke the culture and that was significant. No longer were growers and contractors able to manipulate pickers. The bogus record of employment would no longer be accepted by pickers as a means of payment. [The pickers] were no longer getting their 36-weeks leave of absence. They would go to EI and find they were the subject of a fraud investigation," Moore said.

New rules last spring  However, after years of successful work in the fields, ACT now exists in name only, Moore said. Since 2001, the HRSDC and CCRA no longer accompany the branch in its inspections. When the branch did go into the fields, it gave growers advance notice, which Moore said allowed the contractors time to clean up their act before the inspections.

Last spring, the provincial government changed the laws once again for farm labourers.Graham Currie, spokesperson for the ministry, said the changes were brought in at the request of both the pickers and the growers after consulting other jurisdictions across Canada and Washington State. "Workers felt that the provisions limited their earning potential during the busy harvest season. Farmers found it difficult to compete against other provinces that did not have to pay overtime," Currie said.

So, in order to bring the B.C.'s farm labour standards in-line with other jurisdictions, the province lowered the minimum per-pound piece rate and eliminated overtime pay for workers, which was already set at 120 hours per week. The number of field inspections was pulled back as well. The one positive change, Moore said, is the province demanded workers be paid by direct deposit, which makes it more difficult for contractors to illegally take wages from the workers.

Most contractors found in violation

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Moore reports the branch performed 59 inspections of the hundreds of blueberry, strawberry, raspberry and cranberry farms in the Valley in 2003. It found 69 per cent of the farm labour contractors and 36 per cent of fruit producers inspected were in violation of "core issues." The most common reports were workers once again not being paid the minimum piece rate or a wage at all; not being paid every two weeks; being given fraudulent payroll records and being hired by a contractor without a license. Out of the 1,744 workers interviewed, hundreds reported some sort of violation.

Moore worked for the standards branch for more than 20 years before leaving two years ago for what he said was his "inability to call a spade a digging implement." He said 59 inspections is a week's work for ACT and far less than ministry promised last year when it said it would visit every field.   "When the cat's away the mice will play. The same thing happens with growers and pickers," Moore said. "Growers and contractors have fallen back on their bad habits and are back in the business of abusing and exploiting and using means other than money to compensate pickers."

'Workers are quite happy'

Ramona Soares, ESB regional manager for the Fraser Valley, said the remaining contractors and farms will be inspected through audits not inspections. However, she said most workers are happy with the system running the way it is.

"When we go out in the fields and do site visits, the workers are quite happy," Soares said.   However, Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Fed, said Moore's report leaves no doubt that farm labourers are treated like second-class citizens in Canada.

"The price of food has to reflect the wages it takes to get the food out of the field," Sinclair added.

Growers say pickers make too much

Not everyone agrees with Sinclair.

Geraldine Auston, executive director of the BC Blueberry Council, said hand-harvesters are now demanding as much as 55 cents per pound for blueberries, when the minimum per-pound rate is set at just under 38 cents. She said the average hand harvester could pick 400 to 500 pounds of blueberries per day, making up to $275 per day. Auston said growers just cannot afford these rates and are leaving more than 20 per cent of their fields unpicked - amounting to more than $16 million in lost revenue.

A shortage of farm workers willing to pick for the minimum wage has allowed the tables to be turned for once in an industry with a long history of low wages and exploitation. Auston said the hand harvester's higher rates are unjustified. "They're picking berries," Auston said. "It's not exactly skilled labour."

Local pickers dwindling

In June 2003, the growers produced a report to the HRSDC demonstrating a need for additional workers in the field. After countless efforts to draw more workers from high schools and immigrant communities, Auston said, the growers were unable to replace their aging workforce.

The reason why younger people won't go into the fields is obvious, Moore said."Given the choice between working in the heat of the Fraser Valley's sun for a few dollars more, most decided it wasn't worth it."

Since 2000, the number of workers in the Valley has dropped by more than 850, and because of this some growers are turning to Mexico and the federal government's Seasonal Agricultural Worker's Program, an initiative that brings Mexican labourers to Canada on short contracts to do the harvest.

Mexicans get $12 an hour

Jo Ann Hall, spokesperson for the HRSDC, said B.C. was the last province to become a part of the SAWP because it was had not demonstrated a need for labourers until the grower's report last year.

This summer 11 farms brought 47 Mexican labourers up to Canada under the federal initiative to pick B.C.'s fields at roughly $12 per hour, Hall said.

Sinclair and the BC Fed said if contractors were willing to pay the same wages to Canadians, there would be no shortage of labour.

Charan Gill, secretary treasurer of the Canadian Farm Worker's Union, said the Mexican labourers are brought in because Indo-Canadian workers are starting to stand up for their rights and demand better wages.

"Immigrants have traditionally and historically been exploited in this country," Gill said. "The growers think the Mexicans will work harder."

Vancouver-based journalist Scott Deveau is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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