The culture needs to change before the numbers do

This is chapter two of a four-part series investigating the wage disparity in the Canadian wine industry.

Chapter one began with a discussion surrounding winery management, tax structures, and migrant workers.

This installment goes behind the scenes with winery employees anonymously sharing their personal experiences. All names have been changed to respect the privacy of the contributors.

Luke has completed harvests all over the world, including France, New Zealand and most recently, Canada. The pull to come home inspired the move, and with an impressive resume under his belt, Luke excitedly made the trek back for an enticing role with a start-up winery.

To date, his position remains undefined. Luke is responsible for managing the vineyards and making the wine, yet his name does not appear on the labels. Luke shares, "I know I’m part of the problem. I get paid 50 grand a year and I work 60-80 hour weeks and weekends. I’ll be away on vacation and be asked to drive back to work and I won’t fight it. Too many of us have become normalized to this lifestyle. We’ve created an industry standard that we make fun of. The guy who works the most is some kind of hero. It’s really ugly and backwards. My parents freak out when I tell them how I’m treated. It’s a ‘whose dick is bigger than whose’ by hours worked – it’s not ok.”

When Luke approached the proprietors for a raise, he was met with an immediate no, under the guise of limited resources, despite employing an expensive consultant who advises on stylistic direction behind the scenes, unbeknownst to the consumer. Luke continues, “I made more money as a cellar worker than I’m making right now. If you want to eventually look for jobs, you can’t mess up. So now you are trapped. If I want good wine and I need to get cluster thinning or racking done, all of a sudden I’m in the winery 7 days, 70 hours a week on a 50k/year salary which is below $14/hour.”

It’s a vicious cycle of his own making. “What do you do? There are no jobs that are available especially right now. If I want to get paid more, I need to go to a bigger winery. Who is going to take the hit? Lower profit margins? Does the consumer need to pay more? Does the government need to back off on taxing us? What’s the route that we have to go? Our wine prices are already too high in Canada.”

This same sentiment carries through to various realms of the industry, particularly farming. Courtney works as a vineyard manager, garnering numerable years under her belt looking after various sites, coupled with the task of hiring and managing labour, many of which are migrant workers. She muses, “I’m making $40,000 a year managing 15 sites. I know of wineries owned by rich people who pay minimum wage and expect the world. It’s insane to me, but also why turnover is so high at so many wineries. You won't ever have staff work hard for you if you don't respect them.”

Issues that plague the industry are commonly known among wine industry professionals – high turnover, seasonality, and dependence on tourism – widely accepted as the nature of working in wine. It’s a challenging business in a healthy economy, let alone during a pandemic. COVID has required even higher than normal output, in an effort to slow down the bleeding, with sales plummeting on average 40-60% for small, privately owned wineries.

Cost of living complicates the issue further, with boarding rarely provided by wineries to seasonal or migrant workers, as Luke highlights, “In Canada, cost of living is the highest around the world. In France, I was paid 400 euros a month and provided boarding. And I was comfortable. I ate out a lot. I drank a lot. And I was fine. In Europe, they feel bad for Canadians. It’s Toronto rent in the middle of nowhere. Your cost of living here is absurd. They’re not farming regions, they’re rich people playgrounds. A lot of the wine regions start far less developed and don’t attract money. The rich people were here before the grapes were in Canada.”

Courtney echoes this observation - the negotiation of her wage dangled cheap rent as a tactic, “We were offered lower rent in exchange for less salary. When we eventually had to move, I asked if my wage would be reconciled if I was not getting cheap rent anymore and was never given an answer.”

The matter is further compounded with a steady influx of new graduates willing to do back breaking work for meager pay, thrusting the average income to pathetically low standards, as Megan, a head winemaker highlights, “Most people in wine – especially young people – get minimum wage. It’s ridiculous. Some cellar hands are working in the same spot for 8 years and see one raise in that time. I’ve worked at wineries that expect you to work 16 hour days, 6 days a week. The problem is there is so much work to do. There’s not a lot of labour out there. As a winemaker, trying to find temporary help over harvest is really difficult.”

Even more alarming is the lack of security or benefits provided to workers, often without healthcare coverage of their own, all the while performing duties in conditions that aren’t always safe, as Krissy, a cellar hand, points out, “On a number of occasions, I’ve almost lost my fingers setting up equipment on the crush pad. Why are health insurance and benefits for cellar hands not mandatory? We put out so much effort in a season making money for these companies, getting paid the same amount as someone flipping burgers at a McDonald’s.”

Carrie, a cellar hand attests to the contradiction of high expectations and pitiful working conditions, “Wages and salaries are bad, especially for the hours and level of commitment involved (especially during harvest). I wasn’t paid overtime during harvest, but rather what would’ve worked out to my hourly wage. I was never offered commission or bonuses for sales made to restaurants and in one winery’s case, had a limit on the amount of sales related expenses that they’d reimburse me for.”

An assertion that attempts to justify low wages are the margins, similar to those of hospitality. However, many refute this cop-out exposing archaic hierarchies, unequal opportunity and a revolving door of staff – resulting in perpetual training of new staff. Most wineries include training as a necessary expenditure in their annual budgets, one that could be re-evaluated with more progressive and equitable policies, resulting in higher retention and culture among their hires.

Lisa, a lab tech with nearly 10 years experience, agrees with poignant observation, “The wine industry is built on the backs of young, over educated people who are often exploited and subjected to poor working conditions which lead to injury and frequent mental health issues. The pay for most is hardly passable for a living wage with most cellar hands starting at $15/hr further forcing staff to work 16-18 hour shifts to cover their expenses. The industry is built on burnout culture that functions as a way to endorse the gentleman’s club that it truly is. It is disheartening that winemakers are making so much more annually than I do with a $20/hour salary even though my job requires a post secondary degree and nearly 7 years of experience. The worst still, is I am making what would be considered a good wage in the industry compared to others in a similar position.”

Some of the industry eventually transition to larger estates, with the hope of a regular schedule, paid vacation, and benefits, as Luke confides, “There are weird things within the industry once you jump over to the bigger estates – you’re expected to sell your soul, though. There’s this choice you need to make – do I want a life or do I want to make commercial wine? Most owners – they don’t pay themselves. Even if they do hire someone – the most they’ll pay is $16/hour. Even then it’s never consistent. That really only happens in bigger sites. It’s a really ugly cycle in Canada.”

Alternatively, many opt to leave Canada entirely, seeking out more reasonable conditions that supply boarding, vehicles and living wages, as Megan points out “In Australia, it’s very easy to find these types of positions. When I was working there, I hired for harvest and got tons of travelers. It’s not the case here, because we don’t offer the benefits. A lot of places will offer minimum wage but require you to manage your own housing and transportation. You’d have to have money saved before you came here – you wouldn’t make enough as a temporary harvest worker from overseas to come over, get a one bedroom apartment and buy a vehicle just to go to work and back for two months at $16/hour.”

Megan continues, “The reality is – these businesses cannot afford to pay more. The wine industry is treated differently than any other business. We’re expecting a professional work force to come through, but how do you afford all that? The margins are not big. Everything is very narrow. It’s tough because a lot of places can’t afford to pay people properly – they’re trapped. There are big wineries that make a lot of money but they still pay people low wages.”

A defeatist veil blankets the industry, but as Luke shares, until we shift our mentality and empower more of the industry to whistle blow on its current conditions, we will not experience noticeable change, “It just cycles back. Us trapping ourselves into thinking what we do is normal. You need to change the culture before you change the numbers.”

Thank you to all who contributed.


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