By Tom Collins and Connor Lynch
QUEEN’S PARK — Eastern Ontario fruit and vegetable growers say a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour means they will have to raise their prices.
Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced in late May that the provincial minimum wage will rise from the current $11.40 an hour to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018 and then $15 in 2018. Ontario will be the second province (Alberta was first) to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The minimum wage will go up each year after that to match the cost of inflation.
Fruit, vegetable, and tobacco harvesters have to be paid minimum wage, but farm workers in every other sector do not. This exemption, however, will be reviewed later this year.
Shannon Miller, who runs Miller’s Bay Farm near Smiths Falls with her husband Robert, said the increase will result in a minimum 12 per cent increase in her farm’s retail prices. The farmers will look for efficiencies, such as shortened hours at sales points, more automation for picking crops or changing avenues altogether farther down the road and forget about selling small garden crops.
“Considering the work force we have available to us in Ontario and the increases over the past several years of the minimum wage, we felt it was pretty fair where it was at,” Miller told Farmers Forum. “I don’t think increasing the wage will do anything for the quality of the workforce. If anything, it could just feed that entitlement mentality that we’re seeing in Ontario.”
Ken Forth, the president of Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Services, a program that helps manage logistics for farmers using the seasonal agricultural worker program, told Farmers Forum that the biggest problem with the government’s proposed hike isn’t that the minimum wage went up, but how quickly.
By the time it hits $15 an hour, farmers in the horticultural sector will be paying wages “30 times higher than our competition in Mexico,” said Forth. “We’re in a global marketplace, but we’ve got made-in-Ontario rules.”
John Jaques, of Sunshine Asparagus Farms in Western Ontario, said that while he will have to pay $15 an hour to foreign workers, and provide lodging, competitors in places like Peru pay $8 a day.
The agriculture sector will remain exempt from the Labour Relations Act, which means farm workers cannot collectively bargain with employers or unionize, a position that the Ontario Federation of Agriculture applauded. But the OFA noted in a press release, however, that the higher minimum wage will make Ontario fruit and vegetable growers less competitive in the global market.
“Farm and food prices are globally driven,” the OFA stated. “This wage increase serves to make Ontario farmers and agri-food businesses less competitive, threatens food security and the sustainability of agricultural products available to Ontario consumers.”
The province also announced other changes for employees, including farm workers. Normally when a crop can’t be harvested because of the weather, workers are not paid. One of the changes is that employers must pay three hours of wages to an employee whose shift is cancelled with fewer than 48 hours notice.
“Wow. That’s a new one on me,” said Miller, who has 15 employees in season, including five offshore workers. “That will have an impact as well. It’s pretty hard to predict rain in a 48-hour window.”
Miller doesn’t believe that a higher minimum wage will entice Ontarians to work on the farm as “they can still go to McDonald’s and get the same $15 an hour in an air-conditioned building. It’s hard work here.”
Other changes announced by the premier include: Workers will get 10 personal emergency leave days a year, two of which must be paid; no sick notes are required for personal emergency leave; and equal pay for part-time and full-time workers.
North Gower farmer Mel Foster, who has 12 Jamaicans on his farm to help with harvest, expects increased prices for consumers, but isn’t sure if people will pay more for local produce when they can buy the cheaper food at the grocery stores shipped in from other countries.
“We’ve got to try and look for more efficiencies so we may not have to raise the price as much,” he said. “But if we can’t find them, you’re going to have to raise the prices or slowly lose money. We’re all affected by these tax increases. The government’s reaching into our pockets for more and more because they can’t spend their money wisely.”