From seasonal worker to farm employer

Sooruj Bhoolai, owner of Chips Produce Limited, Bradford, ON. Photos by Glenn Lowson.
Celery is a very labour-intensive crop. Sooruj Bhoolai works closely with his crew of 21 seasonal agricultural workers.
This Mexican worker, Clemente Hernandez, is carefully stacking corrugated boxes of hand-cut celery, destined for major retailers.

Sooruj Bhoolai had a dream.  At 19, he was growing cocoa, coffee and rice in Trinidad, but he wanted more. By joining the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in 1992, he came to Ontario’s Holland Marsh for the summer. The muck soil and the lushness of the vegetable crops left an imprint on him. 


After six years as a seasonal worker, Bhoolai immigrated to Canada and was immediately hired as the farm manager by Gary Rupke. It wasn’t long before he brought his Trinidadian wife. And when Mr. Rupke retired in 2010, Bhoolai was able to take over the business and named his company Chip’s Produce Ltd.


“I knew how to work,” recalls Bhoolai.  “I didn’t see hurdles. When you want to do something, you put your mind and heart into it.”


Behind that positive work ethic is an admission. The most difficult year was 2010, convincing a bank to finance his business. The deal went through and Bhoolai has been hiring both Caribbean and Mexican SAWP workers ever since. He now owns or rents 100 acres of celery. It’s a labour-intensive crop that requires a crew of 21.


“Timing is everything in celery,” he says. “You have to be on top of your scouting and spraying.” 


What is not so timely is the increase of Ontario’s minimum wage from $11.60 to $14 per hour as of January 1, 2018. For Chip’s Produce, this represents an extra $100,000 in compensation this year without any increase from the marketplace. In fact, he thinks he might be getting less for his celery because retailers have access to lower-priced celery from Quebec.


Just across the provincial border, the largest wage rate increase in Quebec’s history is about to occur May 1, when the minimum wage rises from $11.25 to $12 per hour. That rate is still significantly lower than what Ontario farmers must pay, putting them at an economic disadvantage. Celery and other vegetables are likely to flow west from Quebec to the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto.  In the political calculus of the Ontario government in the lead-up to the June 7 election, there was seemingly no thought to the disparity in wage rates with the province of Quebec.


The stress on growers is palpable this year. In Ontario, not only are growers adjusting to a 28 per cent increase in provincial wage rates but also changes in provincial employment standards. 


“The rules are changing much faster than we can absorb them,” says Bhoolai. 


Several commodity organizations are hosting seminars with Ken Linington, policy advisor, Labour Issues Coordinating Committee, to understand more about these changes to employment standards. Beyond the minutiae, he offers sage counsel:  “Whether the wage rate is at $12 or $14 or even $15 per hour, the big challenge for employers is how to engage workers for the best efficiency. Understand both your cultural biases and the cultural biases of your workers to help them transition to the Ontario workplace.”


What do workers want?  Bhoolai says, “They want to be comfortable.” 


This means providing the right clothing for extreme weather conditions. It’s about the right tools for the job.  And most importantly, it’s about respect.


“In the Jamaican culture, they are accustomed to calling the employer the ‘boss,’ explains Ken Forth, a broccoli grower and president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services. “But I insist that they call me by my first name. When I say that at the beginning of the season, I get big smiles all around.”


Respect is a deep admiration for someone, for their abilities, their qualities, their achievements. For that employer-worker relationship to succeed, the emotion needs to flow both ways.


. “We have created the opportunity to work, but the business wouldn’t survive without the work ethic of these workers,” says Forth. “The workers have to feel fulfilled in their jobs.” 


In the dog days of summer, it’s worth starting early in the coolest hours of the day. That’s what Forth has been practising for years so that his Jamaican workers are finished broccoli harvesting before the worst heat of the day.


The employer-worker relationship has never been more important than this year. It’s about motivating a team  -- sometimes of diverse backgrounds – to pull together in less than ideal weather conditions. The mid-April ice storm in Ontario is already testing the mettle of those with greenhouse seedlings that are too tender to put into the ground.


For Bhoolai and all growers, this will be a telling year, a fine balance of adapting and adjusting every day.

Karen Davidson, editor, records a "Behind the Scenes" podcast with Sooruj Bhoolai. Click here to listen.

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Publish date: 
Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Comments (1)

  • anon
    Hughes Vineyards (not verified)

    What possible way can you get 30% more efficiency it is ridiculous to not call a political move with not one consultations or thought for farming.

    May 01, 2018

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