Heinz shutdown continues a dismal trend on jobs

By MPP Toby Barrett

The announced Heinz closing in Leamington is a chilling reminder of the importance of agri-business in rural Ontario. Gone are 740 full-time and 350 seasonal positions. Gone are farm labour jobs and employment in support businesses up and down the value chain.

And then there’s the farmers left without a market for their product, scrambling to find a new crop to put in ground that has already been prepared for tomatoes next year, and stuck with millions of dollars in tomato-specific harvesting and handling equipment. According to Ontario Farmer, the growers will learn their fate Dec. 1 when Heinz will tell them if their contracts will be honoured and their tomatoes exported to an American plant.

The Heinz Leamington plant was the second largest ketchup factory in the world. The company used to boast of this fact and that its ketchup sold in Canada was made from Canadian tomatoes.

Free property, cheap electricity, low taxes were used to lure Heinz to Leamington 104 years ago, according to town Mayor John Paterson. Now, if a buyer isn’t found for the plant, his community could be out $1.2 million in taxes.

Where is our agriculture minister’s Promoting Local Food Act now? By taking the position of agriculture minister, Premier Wynne said she wanted to show the importance her government put on rural Ontario. Obviously, that’s not working. More likely, she’s ag minister to counter her government’s lack of representation in rural Ontario.

It doesn’t take a degree in economics to know that profit is a function of input costs. For just about every industry, electricity is one of the largest expenses. When Ontario has one of the highest electricity rates on the continent, that’s one strike against us. Strike two and three – all the red tape and extra labour required to manage it. There’s even a strike four – high taxes. In this case, “You’re outta here” literally means industry is out of Ontario. U.S. Steel at Hamilton, Heinz, Bick’s, CanGro, Hersheys and Redpath Sugar are among those who struck out – and as well the dismal news last week from Imperial Oil in Sarnia and Cliffs Natural Resources in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire.

Locally, Smuckers/Bick’s consolidated its vegetable processing in Dunnville after closing down production in Scarborough in 2001. Up until closure, the Dunnville facility employed up to 260 full and part time employees, not including affected farmers.

When Smuckers bought the holdings of Robin Hood Multifoods in 2006, the investment in Delhi was worth $12 million and the facility at one time boasted contracts with 200 growers – providing 300 seasonal jobs. The tank farm meant a lot more: offshore and local farm workers, many of them Mexican German Mennonite, enjoyed steady employment, and the bridge that cucumbers provide between asparagus and strawberries through to the tobacco and apple season.

In contrast to automotive and the huge incentives it receives, the agri-food industry is being put out to pasture – or turned into pasture.

Ontario’s Opposition has presented alternatives. Cutting taxes and creating competitive electricity rates is a start. Taming the growth of red tape and reforming labour laws will make Ontario a place where industry and business want to locate.

I hope we can implement alternatives before it’s too late.