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Opinion: MLA Ben Stewart apparently wants B.C. workers to be paid as little as possible

BC Liberal MLA Ben Stewart says that government aid has not encouraged workers to find employment. In doing so, he has inadvertently promoted the idea that workers should be paid as little as possible.
harvesting-grapes-vineyard
A B.C. vineyard is offering basically the worst compensation legally possible in the province for employees while its owner, Ben Stewart — a B.C. MLA — argues that it is “wrong” for the government to financially support workers who lost work during a pandemic.

The narrative that government aid has disincentivized many in the labour force to seek employment is not only myopic but cynical, as recently demonstrated by a Member of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly.

B.C. has the lowest provincial unemployment rate in Canada at 6.6%. In fact, the province’s employment is above pre-pandemic levels.

Still, the “lazy worker”-narrative was recently propagated by BC Liberal MLA for Kelowna West and former B.C. Minister of Agriculture, Ben Stewart, who provided more insight into this position than he probably intended.

“This is wrong!” Stewart tweeted on August 6. “Government programs don’t encourage workers to seek employment.”

Stewart’s moral indignation is presumably against the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) — the federal income support program for employed and self-employed individuals who are not entitled to Employment Insurance benefits. 

CRB is specifically for people who lost their job or had their income reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those in the service sectors that suffered partial or temporary shutdowns.

Stewart’s outrage echoes similar grumblings from retail, hospitality, and other sectors.

However, it is unclear if he is voicing his complaint as a B.C. MLA or a private businessperson, since he is both.

MLA Ben Stewart and his family own Quails’ Gate Winery in Westbank, B.C.

Interestingly, Quails’ Gate currently has a job posting for vineyard workers in 2022. The job requires 60-plus hours per week, six days a week at minimum with seven days availability.

The listed position pays minimum wage. No benefits are listed.

A fascinating element of this job posting is that it explicitly states that the positions are defined as “Farm Workers” under the Employment Standards Regulation for British Columbia. The implication is that there is no overtime pay, although the job amounts to — in its own description — at least twenty overtime hours per week.

In effect, Quails’ Gate offers its vineyard workers basically the worst compensation legally possible in the province while its owner, Ben Stewart — a B.C. MLA — argues that it is “wrong” for the government to financially support workers who lost work during a pandemic.

What this kind of criticism of CRB (and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit before it) often ignores is how businesses have enjoyed many benefits from the federal and provincial governments. These include wage subsidies, rent subsidies, grants, and favourable financing, often with little accountability. The wage subsidy, in particular, is meant to help struggling businesses retain their pre-pandemic payroll. Presumably, businesses that are not struggling shouldn’t have a problem in providing competitive wages.

(As an aside, a company like Quails’ Gate can also avail the Seasonal Agricultural Program whereby thousands of temporary foreign workers arrive annually to work on B.C. farms — even during the COVID-19 pandemic. This program opens up a more competitive supply of “economical” labour for the agricultural sector.)

Despite all these government supports, businesses are rarely accused of increasing their exposure to risk since the costs of those risks are now being subsidized by government programs. Even the necessity of these government programs for businesses is rarely questioned, despite high-profile cases of businesses that collected government benefits, paid dividends to shareholders, and still laid off employees.

Of course, employers will have a challenge rehiring or recruiting workers, especially after months of partial or full closure. It is even harder if an employer offers low wages, tough working environments, and precarious job stability. In reality, the worst offers of compensation will always — relatively — be the least appealing.

So when MLA Ben Stewart complains about workers collecting government aid, while his own company offers jobs with basically the worst possible pay legally, no benefits, and a gruelling near-daily work schedule, he’s effectively saying that he wants B.C. workers to be paid as little as possible.

That’s fine if you’re a business person, but maybe not so much if you’re an elected official.

Mo Amir is the host of This is VANCOLOUR, a politics and culture podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and www.thisisvancolour.com