Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne opened the door to potential support for some farming businesses during a rapid increase to a $15 minimum wage by 2019.
Wynne spoke to reporters on the opening day of the International Plowing Match in Walton Ont., and refused to move on the aggressive timeline for the adoption of a $15 minimum wage. The general minimum wage is currently $11.40 per hour and Wynne has pledged that it will move to $15 by 2019.
That has caused concern in the business community and for farmers, especially those who need large numbers of employees, at low wages, in order to get off a harvest.
The provincial Liberal government’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, Jeff Leal, who answered questions along with Wynne, gave the example of Charlie Stevens of Wilmot Orchards, a Bowmanville-area apple grower.
Leal pointed out that Stevens, who grows Gala apples, competes with farmers growing Gala apples in Chile, Washington state and Mexico and needs to be able to remain competitive.
Wynne acknowledged there have been discussions about the concerns of farmers who pay their employees minimum wage, but also supply housing and transportation, such as to migrant workers.
“I’ve asked Jeff to look at whether there’s something, some supports that can be put in place,” she said. “I’m not sure exactly what those are going to look like, but we recognize that the agriculture community has some challenges that other sectors don’t.
“We know that there need to be some supports put in place during this transition,” she said.
Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown says he’s heard concerns from farmers about the pace of the adoption of minimum wage.
“A lot of the frustration I’ve heard from farmers over this issue is not particularly over $15, it was over giving enough notice, so they can adapt,” said Brown.
In roundtable discussions with farmers, the increase has been a concern, he said, but a lot of the concern was over the lack of time to adjust to having to pay minimum wage workers an increase of close to 30 per cent.
Brown has not objected to a longer-term phase-in of the increase to $15.
New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horvath also supported an increase to $15 as quickly as possible.
The first day of the International Plowing Match attracts many provincial members of the legislature, their staff and the Queen’s Park press corps. For many, it’s their annual trip to visit the rural community.
This year, politicians also had to slog through mud and rain to deliver their agriculture policy messages. The plowing match cancelled its second day, due to muddy and wet conditions, but was scheduled to be open again Wednesday.
— John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia based at Ailsa Craig, Ont. Follow him at @jgreig on Twitter.