Thursday, 21 November 2013

Leamington will survive, Heinz or no Heinz

Leamington, Ontario is not the sort of town to make the headlines. It’s not a town with high-crime rates, environmental catastrophes or anything else the news deems almost exclusively worthwhile to report. Heck, it doesn’t even have a buffoonish mayor being lampooned on U.S. television networks. No, Leamington is a different kind of place. It’s a town synonymous with a beloved vegetable: the tomato. And it’s the tomato that’s mixed up in the media’s recent interest with Leamington.

The town’s succulent tomatoes and skilled farmers drew the Heinz Company to Leamington more than 100 years ago. The company has had a plant there ever since – using Leamington tomatoes to help produce its iconic ketchup. The plant is Leamington’s largest employer and the company has announced that in June of 2014, the Heinz Co. processing plant will be closing. 740 people will lose their jobs.

In a town dependent on selling its tomatoes, the closing of the plant does not just cost people their jobs, it stands to inflict a deep psychic wound on the people of Leamington. In a town where generations of farmers and employees have been connected to the Heinz plant, many will be left wondering what to do now that their traditions are threatened.

Last February, Berkshire Hathaway, headed by famed billionaire Warren Buffet, and 3G Capital bought Heinz for $28 billion. And now, less than a year later, plants are being closed and workers are losing their jobs. It has been estimated by at least one local farmer that Heinz buys roughly 40% of Ontario’s tomatoes. The loss of such a massive buyer for their produce could threaten both the livelihoods and way of life of Leamington’s farmers.

By all accounts, Warren Buffet doesn’t have to worry about how he’ll afford to retire. He doesn’t have to worry about how he’ll feed his family. The Leamington plant is an economic decision for Berkshire Hathaway, allowing it to make cold, surgical cuts to jobs. But the jobs at the plant are more valuable than Berkshire Hathaway or 3G Capital seem to understand. They're not simply jobs. They are part of the heart of an Ontario town. With Heinz being the largest municipal taxpayer in Leamington, the whole community will suffer the effects of this closure.

Though not ideal, Leamington will weather the plant closure. The people of Leamington aren’t alone. They’re in this together as a community. And that’s exactly what will see them through these times. And they will weather this storm. Their fundamentals are strong enough - the soil is still productive, the farmers are still skilled and the world will still be hungry for nutritious produce tomorrow.[1] Tomorrow is the promise of a better day for Leamington, a greater promise than any single company could ever provide.  

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Charter of Values puts Values on the Chopping Block

On November 7, bill 60 was tabled in the Quebec National Assembly, dealing a harsh blow to workers’ human rights. Otherwise known by the absurdly long title of, Charter affirming the values of State Secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests, bill 60 seeks to strip employees of the Quebec public service of their rights to freedom of religion.

The bill places several undue restrictions on workers, all of which are deemed to form an integral part of their employment conditions[1]. For instance, the bill requires that personnel members of public bodies maintain religious neutrality and exercise reserve in expressing religious beliefs while they’re working[2].  To achieve its ends of “religious neutrality” and “reserve” with regard to expressing religious beliefs, the bill prohibits Quebec public service workers from wearing anything that could indicate a religious belief to anyone. Section 5 of the bill states as much:

In the exercise of their functions, personnel members of public bodies must not wear objects such as headgear, clothing, jewelry or other adornments which, by their conspicuous nature, overtly indicate a religious affiliation.

Under the provisions of the bill, employees of the Quebec public service must have their faces uncovered when they’re working and providing services to the public[3]. Contractors on government jobs also have to comply with the same rigid religious stipulations that apply to public service workers[4]. Even people not employed by the government are typically obliged to have their faces uncovered when they receive public services[5].

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what this bill achieves – namely, a level of intolerance that hasn’t been seen in Canada in a mercifully long while. If bill 60 is passed, workers of one faith or another are liable to find themselves in breach of the law. Forced into a position of choosing between their jobs and their faith, workers will have to make decisions no one should be forced to make.

The tension this bill would sow in Quebec has already been on display. The Jewish General Hospital in Montreal has voiced strong objections, calling the bill “patently discriminatory”. And so it is. The bill would prohibit doctors and employees of the hospital from wearing the kippah (or “yarmulke”) or virtually any other symbol indicative of a religious faith while they’re working. The hospital has vowed to defy such provisions of the bill, if it passes.

Canada has been instrumental in fostering human rights, both at home and on the international stage. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations in 1948, establishing human rights as international law for the first time. Canada helped to draft key sections of the Declaration and was at the forefront of this movement to recognize human rights. Article 18 of the Declaration recognizes a person’s right to freedom of thought and religion. Given that the Declaration was passed shortly following the end of WWII, the importance of the recognition of a right to practice religion without discrimination cannot be overstated. To now see one of the provinces stoop to tabling legislation that targets the freedom of workers to express their religion is completely contrary to the sentiments the UDHR and subsequent human rights legislation has been designed to uphold.

Before the bill was tabled, rumours had been circulating that Premier Marois planned to call an election for December 9th, leveraging the expected popularity of bill 60 to gain a PQ majority in the National Assembly. But it seems she was sorely disappointed. According to polls, the Liberals remain in the lead of the PQ. Perhaps as a result of her lagging poll numbers, Premier Marois has stated now that she won’t call an election.

It seems the people of Quebec don’t want legislation that discriminates against workers based on their religious beliefs. It seems the people of Quebec might prefer legislation that bolsters, rather than assaults, protections for a person’s dignity. If Premier Marois wants any chance of re-election, she just may need to acknowledge how deeply offensive, flawed and misguided bill 60 really is.

[1] S. 13.
[2] See sections 3 and 4.
[3] S. 6
[4] S. 10.
[5] S. 7.