Okanagan fruit growers say picker pay raise will be hard to digest

Wages for agriculture workers who harvest crops by hand are going up.
Wages for agriculture workers who harvest crops by hand are going up. (Bob Brawdy/The Tri-City Herald via AP, File)

Some fruit growers in the Okanagan say a mandated pay raise for fruit pickers will be difficult to digest after it is implemented on Jan. 1.

Farm workers who harvest fruit by hand are paid based on the volume of crops they pick rather than an hourly rate.

The minimum wage for pickers paid by piece rate will increase by 11.5 per cent, the same rate of increase made to the general minimum wage in June and the first pay bump since 2017.

Oliver orchardist Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, said it will be a hit to the bottom line.

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“If you look at the apple prices last year, they’ve gone down. So we got two curves, one curve our income is going down, and you’ve got the input costs going up,” he said on Sunday.

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“It effects growers quite a bit because 40 to 60 per cent of our input costs is labour, and labour has gone up dramatically in the last year.”

Sukhpaul Bal, cherry grower and president of the BC Cherry Association, is sour to the across the board raise.

“I don’t know if the growers in certain commodities can handle those large increases in a short time period,” he said.

Bal said pay based on productivity already results in higher salaries for cherry pickers.

“It motivates workers to work hard; they can make more money, $15 per hour plus already, and more experienced pickers over $25 per hour.”

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The provincial government is reviewing the piece rate system to determine if it should stay or go.

Workers’ rights organizations like the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition argue the pay structure should be abolished as some workers end up making less than minimum wage.

“These are some of our most marginalized workers and they deserve at least the same basic floor as any other worker in our province,” said spokesperson Trish Garner in a press release.

Dhaliwal said the review is expected to be complete by the end of January.

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Fruit growers support the current piece rate system but advocate for smaller, incremental increases to ensure their businesses do not rot.