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June 2003


    Forget Mad Cow. Mad Minister’s Disease Threatens BC Farms

    Tom Sandborn

    We’re hearing a lot about Mad Cow Disease these days, but I’m more worried about the emergence of another disease. I’m talking about that recent and alarming epidemic of Mad Minister’s Disease in Victoria.

    I think that a recent decision in Victoria, taken by a pair of ministers obviously in the grips of something pathological, has already poisoned the body politic with structural racism and inequality. The Minister of Agriculture, John von Dongen, and the Minister of Labour, Graham Bruce, have, at the stroke of a regulatory pen, stripped away Employment Standards Act protections from the province’s farmworkers. These are workers who are already amongst the lowest paid and most frequently injured in the province.

    This decision is structurally racist in that it singles out a group made up almost entirely of brown-skinned immigrant workers. It spreads the poison of inequality by taking protections away from these visible minority workers, protections that are enjoyed by almost everyone else in the work force.

    The new deal took effect on May 16. That was the Friday of a long weekend, and the day after the ministers buried the news in an announcement seemingly released to coincide with the news lull that always occurs during such a holiday. A cynic might think the ministers wanted to make a sweetheart deal with the agriculture industry and then hide it from the public. A more charitable view is that the odd timing is just another symptom of their disease.

    Whether it reflects symptoms or political calculation, the deal removes Employment Standards Act protections on overtime, hours of work and statutory holiday pay from all the province’s farm workers.

    Meanwhile, the ministers’ release announced the changes under a headline about “protecting” farmworkers. Clearly, George Orwell’s Big Brother is now writing copy for the BC Liberals!

    The real meat of the release, the removal of farmworkers from the act, was buried at the bottom of the second page, after a lot of fluff about continued farm inspections--by a team of only three inspectors for the entire province--and education programs to remind farm employers that they really do need to pay their workers the wages due them. Let’s get real here, ministers. You don’t protect workers by stripping away hard-won regulatory protections; instead, you make it easier for unscrupulous employers to rip them off. 

    With Mad Cow Disease, the animal staggers in circles and makes unpleasant sounds, then falls down and dies. With Mad Minister’s Disease, similarly, the infected politician staggers in circles and makes all the symptomatic ugly noises, (mooing “competitiveness,” “flexibility,” “profits”). But it’s the constituents, not the minister, who are in danger in an outbreak of Mad Minister’s Disease. The infected minister just keeps on making staggeringly stupid and cruel policy decisions.

    This most recent Victoria decision will increase the sometimes lethal stress and dangers that farmworkers face in their work. Uncontrolled overtime is bound to lead to more injuries and deaths in agriculture. However, to be fair, it will increase profits for the folks who own greenhouses, berry farms, dairies and other forms of agribusiness across the province. This may, in fact, be the main point of the exercise. Meanwhile the 25,000 workers involved are already amongst the poorest in the province.  This looks to me like Mad Minister’s Disease at its worst.

    It may be time to consider quarantine measures for Ministers von Dongen and Bruce and the entire Liberal Caucus herd. Since the ministers see unlimited hours of high-stress farm labour without paid overtime or stat holidays as “protection,” perhaps the caucus could be protectively quarantined--maybe in a berry field or greenhouse this season.

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