Why are we still fighting for fair wages?

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

A question that continues to plague the wine industry: why are we still fighting for fair wages? Dependence on foreign work has emerged as a response to the problem, yet the myriad causes of the disparity are generally glazed over or misunderstood.

Controversies are bubbling to the surface more than ever: the sordid affairs of Valentina Passalacqua, a Puglian winemaker facing accusations of complicit involvement in her father’s crime of “caporalato” (exploiting foreign labour via barely passable living quarters and substandard working conditions), or horror stories of agricultural workers sleeping behind Walmarts in California, attempting to subsist on wages of a few dollars per hour.

It seems a bit foolish in contrast to be hyper focused on sulfur levels or yeast strains, while rarely paying homage to the workers playing a crucial role in the production of bottles being imbibed in the first place.

A divergence of wage growth and inflation, taxes, low margins, cost of land, and most recently, the option of collecting CERB – all contribute to the labour issue affecting the wine industry today.

“What we’re looking for is domestic equivalency – I only collect 42 cents on the dollar for my wine. The most distressful time in our industry – with true existential threats – is when our government needs to come to terms with the fact if they don’t support our industry, there won’t be one.” shares Dan Sullivan, proprietor of Rosehall Run in Prince Edward County.

Sullivan has emerged as a leader in the wine industry, advocating for fair treatment of workers, and emerging as a whistle blower on the unfair tax structures impacting small winery owners.

“We pay some of the highest wages in the world in Ontario. This is not a unique problem to Canada. Most of the crews in France come from north Africa. Italy is the same story. I don’t think we’re going to be moving away from offshore labour any time soon, and I’m not sure that’s really a problem. I also don’t think Canadians are prepared to pay an extra 4-5 dollars more per bottle. If you’re any business in Ontario, you’re subject to 13% HST, all the other various employer taxes that you pay along the line, and then you’re done. In the wine industry, there’s HST and employer taxes, but on top of that you’re paying 6.1% at farmgate and this is collected by the provincial government through the LCBO. The only justification for it is that we’re in the wine business. You’re taking wholly domestic agricultural operations and you’re saddling them with a tax which makes them less competitive to foreign companies that don’t have that in their market. On top of that, there’s an environmental fee, bottle fee, VQA fee - all of these things nibble away at the profitability.”

Arbitrary taxes and fees can mean the difference between a meager profit or breaking even for small, family owned wineries – the bulk of which make up the Canadian wine industry. When it’s a cause of wage disparity– it necessitates petitions advocating to save rural jobs, in hopes of equitable pay and engaging more locals to do the work.

Colleen Ingram, a vineyard manager in the Okanagan Valley, is working with foreign labour for the first time this season. The response to the migrant workers has been disappointing, with issues of prejudice and judgment from locals, ironic considering they’re people who don’t want to do the work anyway: “It’s very upsetting reading the mainstream media – people don’t understand how valuable the foreign workers are. They make my job far easier especially when the locals don’t want to do it. For them, it’s a wage to get you through school. It’s not meant to be a wage to pay for a house and two kids. Unfortunately, in agriculture, a lot of what you see listed is minimum wage.”

On average, $16-18/hour is the norm for agricultural labour, working out to roughly $33,000/annually. While financially attractive to foreign workers, they’re required to leave their families for upwards of 32 weeks. Conversely, Canadians accepting a similar wage are living just above the poverty line.

“We offered jobs to 60 locals while waiting for foreign workers. 16 showed up the first day, 6 showed up the 2nd day and 2 showed up the third day. There’s a mentality of ‘I’m not going to show up and break my back for $16/hour, I’d rather just go home and collect CERB for a little bit less.’ It’s been weird – we’re voicing that we can’t find labour. We’re willing to pay $17-18/hour, but existing labour requires raises that impact our bottom line and the end bottle and how much it costs. If we’re pricing ourselves out of the market by paying people more – we need to find the balance somewhere.”, laments Brett Thiessen, vineyard manager of Mount Boucherie Estate Winery and Rust Wine Co in the Okanagan Valley.

Additionally, with increased choice in jobs from retail to food delivery – most locals are opting for less physically intensive work, with the added bonus of collecting CERB concurrently. With the long hours required in agricultural work, it’s uncommon to find eager and willing workers among the local contingent.

Other wineries are brainstorming new solutions through partnerships with first generation Canadians, as Lee Baker, winemaker of Redtail Vineyards attests, “Do we look at increasing the amount of locals we use? Or do we try to appeal to first generation Canadians by providing them with affordable homes and supporting their entire families? Do we provide them with a scholarship for the children if they come work for us? We might have to think outside the box. COVID was a big stress test on our economy and if anything, it made necessary changes glaring. We saw that our entire industry and food supply chain was at risk because we’re so reliant on migrant workers. We were lucky they opened the borders, but they didn’t have to. At times, I thought it was silly to do so. The number one spread of COVID was international travel. It seems silly as we were laying off 2 million people within Canada.”

The wage and migrant worker conversation is a global one. Without government intervention and assistance, the future of the Canadian wine industry will remain uncertain.


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