Be diligent when welcoming ‘wwoofers,’ says organics official

‘Willing workers’ Producers should be familiar with their province’s labour legislation because unpaid labour might not be free

Hundreds of young Canadians and international travelers volunteer every summer to work on organic farms in Canada. 


Commonly known as wwoofers, which stands for willing workers on organic farms or worldwide opportunities on organic farms, volunteers trade their labour for a room, meals and a unique experience on an organic farm.


The www.wwoof.ca website, which connects wwoofers to organic farms, lists dozens of farmers in Western Canada who accept wwoofers, primarily in the summer. 


However, most wwoofers are not paid an hourly wage for pulling weeds, picking berries and feeding chickens, which contravenes regulations in provinces such as British Columbia and Manitoba, where wwoofers are likely entitled to a minimum hourly wage.


“There’s nothing that would exempt them from the minimum provisions of the employment standards code,” said Jared Beakley, client services manager for Manitoba’s employment standards branch.


Farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan are exempt from provincial employment standards, which means wwoofers on organic farms in those provinces do not have the right to minimum wage.


Beakley said in Manitoba employee complaints and resulting investigations are handled on a case by case basis, but in general, if a farmer and a wwoofer have an employer-employee relationship, the farm worker is entitled to minimum wage.


“You could enter into whatever agreement you want … (but) if we determine it’s an employer-employee relationship, they’re going to be owed pay for the time that they worked.”


Beakley hadn’t heard the term wwoofer before, so it’s unlikely that someone has filed a complaint in Manitoba requesting back pay for time worked on an organic farm.


However, two workers recently filed a complaint in British Columbia requesting minimum wage, and an organic farmer was forced to pay compensation. Certifed Organic Associations of B.C. president Mary Forstbauer, who farms near Chilliwack, said the case has unsettled the province’s organic industry.


Wwoofers usually don’t expect a wage for their work, but some of them make substantial contributions to the farm.


“Some of them work really hard … and then some farmers say, ‘would you like to stay and work and I’ll pay you for the work?’ Other farmers will take advantage of the graciousness of the wwoofer,” Forstbauer said. 


“Farmers in general and organic farmers in particular, should be prepared to pay for the work that’s being done.” 


Wwoofers normally aren’t expected to work an eight-hour day for their food and lodging. Forstbauer said farmers should protect themselves by clarifying the terms of the wwoofing arrangement.


“What I’d recommend to farmers who are taking wwoofers is that they set a value to how much the lodging is, this is how much the meals are worth and this is how much time you would be expected to work,” she said. 


The issue is more complicated for wwoofers from other countries, but Canadian wwoofers are likely protected by provincial regulations, she added.


“If you’re taking a wwoofer from somewhere else in Canada, you should make sure you have things pretty clear as to what the expectations are.”


Employees in B.C. and Manitoba must file an employment standards complaint within six months of their last day of work, which means organic farmers don’t have to worry about a wwoofer filing a claim against them from previous years.