Canada's cheap food policy — that is, paying farmers with government subsidies for the food they grow, rather than paying its true value at the grocery store — is poised to bite us all again, this time as Ontario ramps up plans to increase the minimum wage by more than 30 per cent by 2010.
This proposed measure, announced in March, has the farm sector and the provincial government headed for a showdown. And consumers will pay, either in increased food costs, or in hidden subsidies, provided Ontario wants to maintain the parts of the agri-food sector that are labour intensive.
Ironically, the sector's labour-intensive parts also happen to be among its most promising and, from a consumer's perspective, appealing, particularly fruits, vegetables and flowers.
Lately, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario have become the latest farm group to oppose the proposed increase, which would see the general minimum wage rate, now at $7.75 per hour, climb to $10.25 an hour by March 31, 2010. The federation doubts if anyone really thought about the potential affect on farmers, because so many associate minimum wage laws primarily with multinational companies that operate fast-food restaurants, big-box retailers and hotels. But these laws affect farmers too, who, despite mechanization, still count on workers for manual labour.
I'm sure the optics of opposing a minimum-wage increase weren't lost on the Christian farmers. In fact, in a statement, the federation praised the province for trying to help those it calls "the less fortunate in our society," people whose livelihood is based entirely on minimum wage. But still, it wondered if bigger tax breaks for low-wage earners, rather than a minimum wage hike, would be better.
The federation echoed earlier comments by the Ontario Greenhouse Alliance — representing Flowers Canada and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers — which wondered how Ontario's fruit and vegetable producers can pay escalating wages, and still compete against imports from countries such as Mexico, Columbia and Ecuador which are grown with much cheaper labour.
Field labour even in the southern United States, where much of our imported produce comes from, is much less expensive. In part, that's because it's often carried out by illegal alien workers — estimates number as many as 28 million — who operate under the law.
Is that the kind of employment culture Ontario wants to promote? I don't think so. To its credit, the province works hard to make sure seasonal immigrant workers are cared for here, and has established programs and regional centres to support them during their time in Ontario.
But the province won't be able to avoid this wage issue. In fact, the paradox between wages and farming is underlined by the local food movement, which is gaining steam in Ontario thanks in part to promotion by the provincial government. But as the federation points out, if primary producers and processors can't compete with foreign operators, the local industry will slowly disappear. Along with it will go a bevy of tourism opportunities, ones that Ontario values greatly.
So, says the federation, if the province promotes local food but its own policies drive up wages and increase production costs for farmers, it should be willing to compensate producers for labour costs.
And if it does, consumers will once again pay for the true cost of food through their taxes, in support of hidden subsidies.
In March, when the proposed wage increases were announced, the greenhouse alliance demanded the government put the proposed increase plans on hold, and conduct a competitiveness study to determine the likely impact of its proposal — not just on farmers, but on all small businesses that would be affected. Now, the Christian farmers are advocating a similar, arm's length look at the matter.
Says sheep farmer Lorne Small, an executive member of the federation: "Good policy supports those in need, but it needs to be based on contributions from all of society. Good policy does not ask a small group of business owners, such as fruit and vegetable growers, to shoulder that responsibility on behalf of all society. There are better ways of delivering social services."