Sylvain Charlebois: Very little was gained after a parliamentary committee interviewed grocery CEOs for two hours.
Top Canadian grocers testified before a parliamentary standing committee last week to explain why all COVID-19 incentive programs in their operations were cancelled within hours.
Most grocery store and distribution centre employees were paid extra at the beginning of the pandemic, only to see wages go back to pre-COVID levels now.
CEOs who testified were Loblaws Companies Ltd.’s Sarah Davis, Empire Company’s (Sobeys) Michael Medline, and Metro’s Eric La Flèche.
Witnesses testifying before parliamentary committees are often used as political puppets to support underlying agendas. This session was no different.
Questions were all over the place. CEOs were questioned about farmers, wines, beer sales and everything in between.
Discussions on the safety protocols put in place in the stores were confusing at best.
MPs posed questions that were likely inspired by lobby groups who had got to them, wanting to make a point. Grocers are an easy target and are disliked by many, starting with farmers.
But to be fair, most farmers have no idea of how complicated food distribution can be. Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro employ more than 500,000 Canadians. Such a workforce requires strategic co-ordination.
The two-hour session was simply painful. If it were a TV show, it would have been called The Empress, The Player and The Annoyed.
Davis, the Empress, stayed on point, despite the committee’s efforts to throw her off her game. While Medline played along as best he could, La Flèche was clearly irritated by the entire thing.
Based on the tone of some of the remarks made by committee members, it’s difficult to understand what was accomplished in two hours. There was no attempt to fully understand how food distribution works in Canada. At least, it was not apparent.
Most importantly, it was not clear why only three companies were called to testify about the cancellation of their COVID-19 pay programs. Other companies such as Walmart and Save-On-Foods were not summoned to testify. Retailers who didn’t offer any sort of pay premium weren’t summoned either.
Many questions suggested that MPs suspected grocers were colluding. Fixing bread prices, which occurred over 14 years, is one thing. But talking among grocers is something totally different. It’s not illegal for grocers to talk to each other. Farmers, processors, wholesalers and grocers around the world do it all the time. It’s called co-operation.
Many companies that compete against each other face similar challenges and need to share information, courteously. Climate change, plastics, currency fluctuations and energy costs are some of the challenges that require information sharing within an industry. COVID-19 is the latest example.
The intent is not to favourably change market conditions, but rather to understand how the sector can cope with unprecedented challenges faced by all simultaneously. Hockey players compete against each other but can still be friends. It’s the same in the food industry.
Based on the evidence provided during testimony, nothing suggests that grocers were in fact conspiring.
That said, companies missed an opportunity and should have admitted that these programs were ill-designed from the start.
It was clear from the beginning that pandemic pay programs, also referred to as “hero pay,” would not end well. If companies wanted to reward employees for their work, one-time bonuses would have been more appropriate than temporary salary increases. This is what happens in other sectors of our economy.
Increasing payroll expenses by 10 to 15 per cent over the longer term would make most grocery stores unprofitable. In fact, even with current wages, the Canadian market likely has too many stores and many will close over the next year.
The lack of respect the committee members showed these leaders in the food industry was irritating. Anyone who appreciates the work that was done for weeks during the pandemic would believe it was nothing short of a miracle. Employees played a very important role, no doubt, but so did leadership.
Grocers aren’t perfect. You may dispute decisions made by companies and how employees are treated, but salaries and working conditions are set based on on a high-volume, low-margin business model. It has been like this for years.
Ongoing higher wages would likely result in higher food prices, so MPs need to be careful what they wish for.
Food security in Canada is a paramount issue, especially now. The pandemic has made us realize that the model needs modernization.
There’s a collective call for change and all three CEOs who showed up in Ottawa are very much aware of it. They have some work to do.
But the government needs to play a part as well. A guaranteed income for all has only gained currency throughout this pandemic.
Let us hope the crisis we have all experienced won’t go to waste.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.