Fruit growers meeting in Penticton this week are talking about how increases to minimum wage, lack of seasonal workers and low prices are hurting the industry. (Black Press file photo)

‘Everybody’s drowning right now’: B.C. fruit industry struggling

Increase to miminum wage and adjustments to piece rates could affect seasonal workers

“Everybody’s drowning right now.”

That’s the state of the B.C. fruit industry, according to Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the BC Fruit Growers Association (BCFGA).

Dhaliwal made his metaphor following the BCFGA annual general meeting in Penticton on Feb. 12 and 13.

He said the increasing minimum wage and possible changes to piece rates are negatively impacting local orchards. Meantime, local farmers are not seeing an increase in returns.

READ MORE: Temporary farm workers using Kelowna homeless shelter

Minimum wage in B.C. will be be $13.85 per hour as of June 1, 2019, and for foreign workers the employers must also cover the cost of airfare and housing.

“The wages have increased, but we need to see a fair deduction for some of the other inputs,” said Dhaliwal. “When you take in the cost of housing, with electrical and everything, and airfare, that’s way more than minimum wage.

“Last year, we had integrity audits happening, so that put a stop on a lot of the workers come from Mexico or the Caribbean countries,” he added.

For workers coming from other parts of Canada — Dhaliwal said 4,500 to 5,000 youth come from Quebec and Ontario to help harvest apples and cherries —employers may also choose to pay a regulated piece rate.

As of Jan. 1, 2019, the rate is $21.06 a bin for apples, $22.38 a half bin for peaches and $0.277 a pound for cherries.

Dhaliwal said the B.C. government will soon be reviewing those rates, which could result in more losses for local orchards.

He said the BCFGA is going to approach the government and emphasize the importance of farmers.

“They protected the land, but they forgot about the farmer,” he said.

READ MORE: Difficult year for Okanagan fruit growers

Dan Taylor with Cawston Cold Storage Ltd. said there are pros and cons to hiring orchard workers by the minimum wage or by the piece rate, but in his experience, they typically work out to the same.

He said this may change as the minimum wage increases, but he is still seeing a spike in operational costs elsewhere.

“It’s just overall in the industry that the wage has gone up, and the returns to the grower have not gone up,” said Taylor. “Crop insurance has gone up quite substantially, too. It’s costing me quite a bit more to have my acreage insured than it used to.

“Whether you go with organic or conventional (farming), the cost of the inputs in the last five years has doubled, but our return isn’t going up,” he added.

Donny Espet-Post at EP Orchards said he is unable to afford hiring workers, something that likely won’t change with the cost of operations increasing.

“I do the work myself for nothing. Not until the food pays, I can’t do anything,” said Espet-Post. “I could use help, but I can’t afford to pay anybody.”

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

Jordyn Thomson | Reporter
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