By Tom Collins and Connor Lynch
QUEENS PARK — The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) says the provincial government’s decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour will make Ontario farmers less competitive on the global market.
“Farm and food prices are globally driven. 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,” reads an OFA press release.
Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced on May 30 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 the following January. Ontario will be the second province, after Alberta, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The wage will go up each year after that to match the cost of inflation.
Farmers took to Twitter to protest. Wellington County dairy farmer Tom Schuurmans tweeted on May 31: “Huge jump just to gain votes for next election, meanwhile destroying economy.”
The president of Foreign Agricultural Resources Management Services, a program that helps manage logistics for farmers using the seasonal agricultural worker program, Ken Forth, who farms at Lynden, east of Hamilton, told Farmers Forum that the 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.”
Fruit, vegetable, and tobacco harvesters have to be paid minimum wage, but farm workers in every other sector do not. But this exemption will be reviewed later this year.
The OFA, however, noted there is “no justification for changes to the current, flexible approach for farm workers under the Employment Standards Act.”
The agriculture sector will remain exempt from the Labour Relations Act, which means farm workers cannot collectively bargain with employers or unionize, which the OFA applauded.
“OFA appreciates the Ministry of Labour has recognized the legitimacy and efficacy of Agricultural Employees Protection Act to protect the rights of farm workers.”
The province also announced other changes for employees, including farm workers. 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; employers must pay three hours of wages to an employee whose shift is cancelled with fewer than 48 hours notice; and equal pay for part-time and full-time workers.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the new regulations will punish small businesses.
“We are shocked and appalled that the government is broadsiding small business owners with a 32 per cent increase in the minimum wage within only one-and-a-half years,” said Julie Kwiecinski, CFIB director of provincial affairs for Ontario. “Small businesses, who don’t share the larger profit margins of big business, will be forced to make difficult choices, including cutting hours and jobs.”
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce said the changes will hurt job creation and raise consumer costs.
John Jaques of Sunshine Asparagus Farms at Thamesville, said labour is the biggest issue facing asparagus growers in North America. He said the minimum wage increase will devastate the commercial asparagus business in Ontario.
“I don’t begrudge anybody making $15 an hour,” he told Farmers Forum. “The problem is, my competition isn’t my neighbour down the road, it’s the people from offshore. In Peru, I think it’s $8 a day. That’s where the competition is. If I have a McDonald’s franchise and my wages go up 20 per cent, I can raise the price of my hamburger 20 per cent because I know that Burger King down the road is going to have to raise their wages as well, so I’ll still be competitive. But I can’t raise my wages. If I do, I lose markets.”