Is technology the answer to labour issues?

Is tech the answer to labour issues?
Marg Land
November 08, 2017
By
According to my children – and myself at times – I’m ancient. I grew up in those heady days before TV remotes and hand-held video games, back when where you stood in a room played a role in whether the TV station would come in clear. I remember when personal computers became mainstream. My first PC was gigantic, composed of three heavy, bulky components that could each serve as a boat anchor. The PC was going to revolutionize work. Hello three-day workweek.


It didn’t happen. People just worked harder and longer hours. Sure, many tasks became quicker and easier to do but it always seemed that as one job became simplified, another was tacked on to your work description. And with most advances in labour-saving technology I’ve observed during the past 40-plus years, the same trend has occurred. Cell phones, digital still and movie cameras, computer tablets – amazing technology that has assisted me in my career but also added even more to my plate. I’ve become a jack-of-all-technology but a master of none.

Perhaps that’s why I’m watching the current trend toward automated agriculture with a jaundiced eye. Computerized harvesting aids, unmanned flying cameras, automated tractors, robotic pickers – it all sounds wonderful and fascinating; the stuff of science fiction novels and movies. But it also seems industrial and cold. At a time when society is clamouring for some sort of connection to their food, do we really want the narrative to become I, Robot?

The push toward technology and automation is understandable. Dwindling labour pools and rising minimum wage on top of challenges such as international competition and high electricity costs are enough to make some growers consider throwing in the trowel.

“There’s already a diminished horticulture industry,” said Ken Forth, chair of the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association labour section, during a recent interview with the Flamborough Review. “If you drive around ... you’ll see fields that used to be horticulture crops that are now growing grain.”

According to a recent report commissioned by the OFVGA, the Ontario government’s decision to raise minimum wage in the province to $15 per hour by January 2019 is expected to cost the horticulture industry alone $225 million in added costs.

“Fruit and vegetable growers are price takers in this market and losses to their margins cannot be recuperated in sales,” association representatives stated in a release to members.

The OFVGA is encouraging growers to discuss the minimum wage issue with their local MPPs, including providing a letter template outlining the industry’s concerns. They hope to convince the government to allow farmers until 2023 to transition to “a sustainable price structure” and invest in new technology before imposing the minimum wage hike for ag.

While Premier Kathleen Wynne has hinted at help for small business and farmers, no details have been released on what that assistance might look like. With less than 100 days until the New Year, it may be time to brush up on Asimov’s Laws.

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