Okanagan cherry pickers walk out for better wages, working conditions

Canadian Press, Penticton Herald, Monday 9 July 2001, 9:49 PM EST

OLIVER, B.C. (CP)—The harvest of British Columbia's famed cherry crop was put in jeopardy after cherry pickers walked off the job over wages and working conditions. Cherry growers were in their orchards Monday picking their own cherries in the wake of the strike Sunday evening.

The non-unionized workers said they won't return to the orchards until their demands are met.

Growers are already crying for workers, with an estimated shortfall of 150 pickers in the Oliver and Osoyoos area.

Cherries are falling off the trees right now, said organizer Guillaume Boutin, 22, of Montreal. They'll have to do something or they'll go to waste.

Most of the pickers are young people from Quebec who migrate to British Columbia for the fruit-picking season.

Boutin said an estimated 50 per cent of growers are paying pickers less than the minimum piece rate for what they pick, he said. Working conditions don't meet the Employment Standards Act, he added.

They're (pickers are) just trying to make money to go back home or somewhere else, said Boutin. They make more on welfare.

The big farms give good wages, but the small farms are not good.

The government-set minimum piece rate is $2 per level-filled 4.5-kilogram bucket, but pickers are often asked to overfill the buckets at the same pay.

With a good cherry yield, like this year, a good picker can earn between $100 and $200 a day, Boutin said. An average picker earns between $20 and $40.

Inexperienced pickers are asked to climb ladders dangerously high—up to four metres—to get at the top-most cherries. However, regulations say the they can climb no higher than three metres.

Growers often don't provide water or washroom and shower facilities. Some pickers are forced to relieve themselves in nearby bushes, and they have nowhere to wash pesticide residue from their clothes at the end of the day.

Pickers also question record-keeping by the grower and unethical procedures, such as taking filled buckets sitting under their tree and dumping them in the communal bin before crediting them to the picker.

I argue with them an hour each day to get my pay, said Pierre Olivier, 18, of Alma, Que.

It's like a little war, added Fred Parent, 21, of Montreal.

Pickers signed a petition Sunday that will be sent to the province's Ministry of Agriculture and the Employment Standards Branch.