Thursday, 08 March 2018 06:44

Alberta’s greenhouse industry loses ‘Agriculture’ classification; will have to comply with ‘Industrial’ employment regulations

Written by  Jamie Rieger
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It was a missed opportunity for Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray to learn about the greenhouse industry when she canceled  a meeting with Redcliff greenhouse operators last week. The meeting was to be held last Wednesday. The cancellation left those in the local industry disappointed and without a chance to explain their business.

"I was disappointed she didn't show up," said Doyle Brandt, chair of the Red-Hat Cooperative board, who had plenty of questions for Gray whose ministry changed the classification for greenhouses from 'Agriculture" to "Industrial" when Bill 17, Alberta's new Employment Standards Code, was enacted on Jan. 1. Changing the classification means greenhouse operators will no longer be able to apply for specific labour standard exemptions for those in the agriculture industry.
"It doesn't make sense. Under specific sections of Bill 17, Section 4 for one, it does include greenhouses, but now because we grow inside, the Minister said it doesn't include us," said Brandt.
Brandt said representatives from the greenhouse industry met with Minister Gray last year. And the meeting had a fairly positive tone, with no mention of the change in classification.
"At that time, it was more about WCB and hours worked. When the days are longer, we work longer hours. The plants produce more when there's 16 hours of sunshine," said Brandt. "Part of the problem is that the workers we have want to be working because they know they won't get their hours during the slower times. I guess we just have to wait and see now. This is all political and our hands are tied. There is nothing we can do."
The changes to the legislation includes things such as holiday pay, paycheque deductions, leaves, overtime, and job-specific age restrictions.
"When we provide the transportation and housing for our foreign workers, this really puts us behind the curve and it compounds the problem. We hire as many locals as we can,  and we used to have a lot of students. Now, we don't have the students coming for work any more. It's a different workforce now," said Brandt. "What they told us last fall and what they did are two different things."
Drew Barnes, MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat and United Conservative Shadow Finance Minister was quick to respond to how the changes impact the greenhouse industry and to Gray's cancellation of the meeting.
"This is just another slash at our producers, who will not be able to compete. She (Minister Gray) said she is not going to change her mind. It is beyond belief," said Barnes. "It was important for her to come here and learn about the greenhouse industry."
As Alberta greenhouse operators get hit with more legislation, it is allowing its competitors in the United States and Mexico to jump in and fill the void.
Barnes stated in a press statement, that “we are looking at a situation where our good producers are going to have to compete with (producers in) Mexico and California (whose products) get on a jumbo jet and get flown here”.
Brandt said even competitors in British Columbia where the climate is more temperate, will have an advantage.
"Our competition, BC for example, are able to grow more and don't have the heating bills we have here. We need our government to support us," said Brandt, adding that the Alberta Greenhouse Rebate program is a smoke screen.
"With the Greenhouse Rebate program, they take money away from us with the carbon tax, then give it back like they are doing us a favour."
Brandt said that Minister Gray should take the time to get educated about the industry, especially when making decisions that could bring the industry to its knees.
"We are trying to work with them and educate them because they don't understand our industry. We're all worried. There are a lot of families with greenhouses who are affected. It's not like we can pass our expenses on," he said.

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