Hutterite WCB exemption blasted

Criticism grows over the way Manitoba deals with manufacturing plants owned by Hutterite colonies.

Criticism continues to grow over the way Manitoba deals with manufacturing plants owned by Hutterite colonies.

Colony-owned businesses do not report to the Workers Compensation Board, which means there is no record of injuries.

Enterprises owned by Hutterites don't pay wages so they are outside the compensation board's mandate, according to Don Hurst, assistant deputy minister of the province's Workplace Safety and Health Department.

More than 3,000 workers at Manitoba manufacturing companies lost time in 2009 due to on-the-job injuries, according to the WCB, but the government has no idea how many people are hurt in Hutterite-owned plants.

However, Hurst said he's confident the colony businesses have no more frequent injuries than other manufacturers, as they are subject to the same inspections.

Sore point

But other manufacturers say Hutterite-owned competitors should be subject to the same workplace rules they are. They say the province should force those companies to report to the WCB.

Gino Koko, general sales manager of Vicwest, a maker of exterior building products, said conventional manufacturers are required to pay annual workers compensation fees, and the government should create a level playing field by making Hutterite colonies do the same.

Colonies also don't have to pay their Hutterite workers wages, and critics say this enables them to undercut regular businesses on pricing.

Many colonies have long made building supplies for their own needs. But recently, some that make products such as wall panels and kitchen cabinets have been expanding into the general construction materials marketplace.

'We take care of our people'

Jake Maendel, CEO of Prairie Truss, owned by the Prairie Blossom colony near Stonewall, disagrees with the contention that his workers should be paying into workers compensation.

"No, no, no, why? They're our own people, they're shareholders of our company. Why would they have to pay?" he said.

Asked if his workers would be safer if they were monitored by the WCB, Maendel simply said: "We take care of our people."

An official with the Manitoba Finance Department confirmed that adult colony members who work for colony businesses are not considered employees. Instead, they're regarded as self-employed agents who share in the profits of an enterprise.

They pay income tax but are not subject to health or post-secondary tax levies, and don't pay into Employment Insurance or the workers compensation pool.

Two Hutterite manufacturing companies directly compete with Vicwest, but Koko is not the only one complaining. Several other manufacturers have expressed the same concerns to CBC — including one that filed a formal complaint with the WCB earlier this year — but only Koko would allow his name to be used.

With files from the CBC's Louise Charette