While the pacifist beliefs of Canadian Hutterites have been controversial in the past, so have their communal living patterns, especially when they appear to pose problems for non-Hutterites.
Last week, the CBC reported that some Canadian business people have been complaining about the colonies, which they feel are allowed unfair competitive advantages by the provincial government. The issue that has provoked this resentment has been the move by some colonies to go into new lines of manufacturing. Their successes have caused feelings that the ”playing field” is not level.
In one story from the CBC, Gino Koko, general sales manager for Vicwest, a company that manufactures metal building products headquartered in Oakville, Ontario, expressed his resentment against his Hutterite competitors. He argued that the provincial government does not treat Hutterite-owned companies the same way it does other firms. The colonies do not pay their workers wages, which gives them an unfair advantage, he said.
Adult members of a Hutterite colony are not considered to be employees by the Manitoba Finance department. Instead, they are characterized as self-employed agents who share in the profits of the enterprise. They pay income taxes but they do not have to pay into the Workers Compensation pool or the Employment Insurance fund.
Mr. Koko said that competition by the colonies against his company has been growing over the past three to five years. “Every year they gain a bit more market share and they gain a bigger customer base,” Koko indicated. He maintained that it is unfair because the Hutterite construction firms do not have to follow the same rules.
Domtek, a manufacturing firm owned by the Newdale Colony near Brandon, Manitoba, employs 10 workers who are Hutterites and six administrators who are not. Jonathan Wollmann, Assistant Manager of the Newdale Colony, defended the system. He said the colony does pay their workers, but “not in the form of money, we pay them with a well-furnished house [and] three, four, five meals a day.”
Jennifer Howard, the Manitoba Labor Minister, agreed that the Hutterite colonies have different costs from other businesses. “I understand [the] concern from other businesses—that they have to pay things that other people don’t—but I do think it’s a different system on a Hutterite colony.” She said that the Hutterites also pay for their own educational programs, and added that the Canadian provinces haven’t really figured out these issues completely.
The CBC carried another story the next day to further explain the situation. It quoted Gino Koko again, this time emphasizing his opposition to the fact that the Hutterites do not have to pay into the workers compensation fund. Since the colonies do not report to the Workers Compensation Board, there is no public recording of injuries by the Hutterite firms. Don Hurst, assistant deputy minister of the provincial Workplace Safety and Health Department, told the news service that the Hutterite enterprises are subject to the same inspections as all other firms in the province, so he expressed confidence that their injuries are no more frequent than anywhere else.
Jake Maendel, who is the CEO of Prairie Truss, a firm owned by the Prairie Blossom colony near Stonewall, Manitoba, also contradicted critics who believe Hutterite workers should pay into the compensation fund. He said that the workers are part owners of the company, that they are the shareholders, so why should they pay?
An official from the Manitoba Finance Department told the CBC that colony members who work for the manufacturing companies are regarded as self-employed agents, people who share in the profits of the business, rather than employees. The CBC report mentioned that other manufacturers have also been complaining, but Mr. Koko from Vicwest has been the only one willing to be quoted on the issue.
The news story on November 9th received scores of comments, some clearly opposing the Hutterites but many expressing their approval of the government’s treatment of the new firms. The former reflect anger at what the writers perceive to be unfair treatment in favor of a minority population that happens to live in colonies. Many of the latter, posted by Hutterites themselves, express the view that the colonies are being treated fairly, that their circumstances are different, and that the “playing field” is in fact quite level.
While most of the comments on both sides of the debate were well written, some were not very well reasoned or effectively researched. One commenter, for instance, described the work of the Hutterites as “slave labour.” The commenter added, “they work for room and board and don’t share in any of the profits. Thats [sic] the same arrangement the slaves had in the south and it was outlawed for good reason.”
Less than two hours later, a commenter self-identified as “HuttFarmer” replied that the earlier writer did not “know the first thing about us.” He or she added, obviously piqued by the earlier comment, “And for the record, I’ve never thought of myself as a slave. I have my own free will and my standard of living is probably at least 3 times what yours is.” HuttFarmer added a point that had already been made, that all the profits from the Hutterite enterprises are shared within the community.
Amish people who run construction companies in rural areas of Eastern states and undercut the prices of neighboring “English” firms also provoke resentment for similar reasons. But unlike the Hutterites, the Old Order Amish do not own computers nor do they typically respond to critics the way the people in the colonies do.
The Hutterites obviously do not take what they consider to be unfair criticisms passively, and they are not afraid to stand up for themselves. The CBC website has thumbs up to express approval, and thumbs down to express dislike, in the same manner as Facebook, for each comment. Hutterite-friendly comments received far more thumbs up designations than thumbs down.