Greenhouse growers concerned about new labour rules

By Leah Murray - CHAT News
March 2, 2018 - 10:31am

MEDICINE HAT - Vegetable growers in Alberta are speaking out about new labour rules they say are affecting their ability to do business.

Bill 17 went into effect in January 2018, and strips greenhouses of their agricultural exemption under the Labour Code.

That means greenhouses now have to pay overtime to employees who work more than 44 hours a week.

For Sunshine Greenhouse in Redcliff, that would mean an added expense of nearly $100,000 per year.

“Our businesses can't handle the significant extra costs that paying overtime would create,” said co-owner Dirk Vis. “So, what we'd have to do is scale everybody back to a regular 44 hour work week.”

Albert Cramer, chairman of the Greenhouse Growers Association of Alberta, said employees typically work eight to ten hours a day depending on the time of year.

Cramer said the government asked them to survey workers on whether they’d want to continue under the labour rules they’ve been operating under or introduce overtime. He said 87 per cent preferred more hours to overtime.

“They'd rather work more hours and not get paid overtime,” he said. “Otherwise they're down to eight hours and they want more hours than that.”

Vis said the additional cost of overtime isn’t something they can just tack on to the cost of their produce. He said they’re at the mercy of the U.S. which is able to grow and import produce cheaper and if they aren’t competitive, they’ll be priced out of the market.

Vis adds they are also competing with greenhouse growers in B.C. and Ontario for market share and said they aren’t facing the same restrictions.

There are around 30 growers in the Redcliff area operating 170 acres of greenhouses that are affected by these new rules.

Cramer said he doesn’t understand why greenhouses were removed from the agricultural exemption.

“They decided that greenhouses that grew vegetables were not part of agriculture anymore,” he speculated.

Labour Minister Christina Gray was supposed to tour the Sunshine Greenhouse on Wednesday, but cancelled her visit on Tuesday. Cramer and Vis said they were not given a reason why.

Vis said he thinks it’s important for the government to take the time to understand the effect their policies have on the businesses they impact.

“We'd like to get the people in government to know what's happening here in southern Alberta, in the greenhouse industry,” he explained.

Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes said he was disappointed to see the minister cancel her visit.

Barnes said it’s important for government to support the growing greenhouse industry.

“[They] have to be considered agriculture, we have to be on the same playing field as B.C. and Ontario,” he said. “We have to stay competitive and we have to ensure that our families and producers have the best opportunity to continue to grow the best product for us.”

Concerns were raised in the past when the NDP introduced the carbon tax. Greenhouses weren't exempt from the carbon tax unlike other agricultural operations.

After some push back from growers in Alberta the government changed those rules giving them an 80 per cent exemption.

The growers are hoping to have similar success on the overtime issue.

We reached out to the Labour Minister’s officer for comment, but have not heard back.

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