B.C. case throws apprenticeships in doubt

Unpaid labour | Farmers reassess apprenticeship programs after organic producer pays up

A Vancouver Island organic farmer has learned the hard way that there is no such thing as an unpaid apprentice.


A husband and wife, who were apprentices on Evelyn Pereira’s organic farm in the Cowichan Valley north of Victoria, filed a complaint last summer with British Columbia’s labour ministry, saying they had worked at the farm for several months and were not paid minimum wage.


After consulting with labour lawyers and learning that she had little chance of winning the case, Pereira participated in a provincial government mediation process in January. She offered the couple a portion of their outstanding wages and they accepted. 


“What I have learned is (anyone) in B.C. that takes on anybody to do any kind of work on their farm and does not pay them minimum wage is running the risk of being taken to Employment Standards,” Pereira said from her farm near Mill Bay, B.C.


News of the case spread rapidly through B.C.’s organic farm community and may threaten the common practice of taking on apprentices and wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms). Most organic farmers do not pay wwoofers or apprentices an hourly wage.


“It’s made me reassess my commitment to the wwoofing type of system and possibly moving away from it,” said Arzeena Hamir, who farms near Courtenay, B.C., and is a director of the Certified Organic Associations of B.C. 


Pereira and her husband, Jesse, were considering selling their farm last spring, when a couple in their late 50s and early 60s expressed interest in buying the farm. However, they first wanted to learn more about organic farming, and Pereira agreed to take them on as apprentices.


As part of a verbal agreement, Pereira paid them a stipend of $500 per month each to cover living expenses. The couple also received $25 per week in meat produced on the farm.


“It started out really well, partly because on most farms April is slower, so there is lots of time for talking, learning and teaching,” Pereira said.


“(But) when the real work time started, they had a hard time adjusting to (the reality) that there wasn’t four hours per day to talk anymore.”


Pereira and the couple began to argue over compensation. For instance, Pereira has a two acre patch of blackberries and was planning to hire pickers for the crop.


The couple sent her a letter, stating they expected the same rate of pay as the workers hired to pick the berries.


“We said no. You are here as apprentices…. So, they were upset about that,” Pereira said.


Other disputes flared up, such as sick time compensation and the start of the workday. 


“Because we run livestock we start at 7 a.m. …. (but) they wouldn’t come out (of their RV) until 9 a.m.”


In July, the couple informed Pereira that they were quitting.


“I can tell you it was a great relief.”


However, Pereira received a letter from the couple three weeks later telling her they had contacted B.C. Employment Standards and notified the government that they worked on the farm but were not paid.


They also sent Pereira a provincial government form claiming they had worked 12 hours a day, seven days per week, while at Terra Nossa farm.


“He was looking for around $11,000 and she was looking for $8,000,” in back pay, Pereira said. 


“(But) because they didn’t send it registered mail, I chose to ignore it. Then, three weeks after that, I got a phone call from Employment Standards.”


Alarmed, Pereira consulted several labour lawyers, who told her the same thing — she had no case.


“In B.C., a definition of an employee is somebody who comes onto your place of business and does the work that an employee would do. Technically, then, these people were doing the work as if I had hired an employee.”


Pereira’s case was based on a verbal agreement she made with the apprentices, but she said a written agreement doesn’t provide legal protection for a farmer either.


“Employment Standards told me that nobody can sign away their rights to minimum wage.”


With the mediation now complete and the issue behind her, Pereira has decided to share her story with other organic growers. As far as she knows, this is the first case of its kind in B.C, so talking openly about it wasn’t an easy decision.


“If I don’t say anything, (fewer) apprentices are aware that they even have this option. The more public I make it, the more likely it could happen,” she said.


“But if you don’t make it public, the farmers are at risk of not knowing.”


Mary Forstbauer, president of the Certified Organic Associations of B.C., said she isn’t aware of Pereira’s case in detail, but it has been the topic of many emails within B.C.’s organic community.


“For some reason the agriculture industry feels they don’t have to pay apprentices,” said Forstbauer, who farms near Chilliwack, B.C. 


“My son is working in a co-op program at university in a different field and he got paid well over minimum wage for his apprenticeship.”


Organic and conventional farmers should be prepared to pay for the work that’s being done on their farm, she added.


“Every other industry pays for apprentices and I don’t think farming should be any different.”


Pereira said her case was the exception to the rule. Most interns and apprentices on organic farms are there to learn rather than earn a living.


“I don’t want to come out really negative against the (intern) programs … (but) every farmer is at risk,” she said.