Producers say an ill-fated experiment in the province in the early 2000s wreaked havoc in the agricultural industry
LANGLEY, B.C. — The Alberta government should think hard before implementing overtime pay on agriculture operations or they will force jobs out of the province, warned British Columbia agriculture producers.
“The whole primary agriculture needs an overtime exemption. We cannot live with overtime,” said Stan Vander Waal, chair of the British Columbia Agriculture Council and owner of Rainbow Greenhouses in Chilliwack, B.C., and Iron Springs, Alta.
“This does not translate into simply more jobs. Overtime will drive primary jobs from Alberta to jurisdictions like B.C. where overtime is not paid.”
Vander Waal said he had planned a five-acre expansion to his 1.2 million sq. foot greenhouse in southern Alberta but cancelled it because of the uncertainty surrounding labour rule changes following the passing of Bill 6 in the province in December.
The bill removes farms’ exemption from occupational health and safety, mandatory workers compensation, labour relations and employment standards.
Alberta farmers told the provincial government during consultation meetings earlier this winter that introducing overtime pay and other benefits to farms would be unworkable, especially in the busy harvest and calving seasons. No labour law changes have yet been made.
“Farm workers have no choice other than to simply ‘make hay while the sun shines,’ ” Vander Waal said in an email.
“There is no other way to plant, do crop and animal care, work, harvest or milk when it’s time, pick your tomatoes or flowers at the perfect time to assure they don’t spoil.”
Rainbow Greenhouses produces flowers and vegetables for seeds and cuttings at its 1.2 million sq. foot greenhouse in Alberta and its 1.2 million sq. foot greenhouse in B.C., which employ 225 full-time and 75 seasonal workers.
Rhonda Driediger, who operates a blueberry farm and a packing facility in Langley, said the then NDP government created chaos when it introduced double overtime after 40 hours a week for farm workers. Industry meetings turned violent as farmers shouted death threats at government officials.
“It was chaos,” said Driediger, labour co-chair of the B.C. Agricultural Council.
Driediger and other farm owners who rely on seasonal agriculture workers halted work after 40 hours rather than pay overtime. The workers, many who came from other countries to work for a few months, were angry. They walked across the road to other jobs after 40 hours and continued to work, she said.
“It didn’t stop anything, it didn’t improve anything,” said Driediger, who has 100 to 150 seasonal workers in the field and 100 in the processing plant.
“Now they were just pissed because they had to work at two different places. We were pissed because we had to have massive crews coming and going but had to monitor them so they could only work 40 hours. It solved nothing.”
The government eventually reversed its decision, and overtime is no longer paid in weather-dependent jobs. However, workers cannot work excessive hours.
Driediger said farms take advantage of sunny days to work longer in the field, but farm worker hours can’t be averaged over long periods of times. Workers must be paid twice a month.
David Janssens, a dairy farmer from Surrey, said he isn’t obliged to pay his six employees for the 10 statutory holidays a year, but he does as a recognition of their work and an incentive to stay.
He said his supply-managed dairy business can afford to pay its workers well, and providing the same labour standards as other industries is just the cost of doing business.
“It’s not the 1970s,” he said.
“I can’t yell at my employees like my dad used to.”