A bitter strike at the Rogers Sugar refinery in Vancouver is taking some of the sweetness out of the holiday season for bakers and candy makers.
Small businesses across Western Canada that depend on sugar are struggling with shortages and higher costs as labour action at one of the country’s few sugar processing facilities stretches into a seventh week.
At Le Gateau Bakeshop in Vancouver, owner Tanya Muller is growing increasingly concerned.
During the busy Christmas season, she typically goes through 150 to 200 kilograms of sugar per week to make the 20 different varieties of holiday cookies her bakery specializes in.
But now, the maximum amount of the sweet stuff her wholesale supplier can give her is two bags, or 40 kilograms, per week.
“We’ve been doing things like lining up early in the morning at Costco and trying to get in first thing to see what’s available there. And sometimes that works, and sometimes, you know, Costco doesn’t have anything either,” Muller said.
“I’m worried we won’t be able to fulfil our orders, which obviously isn’t ideal for the holiday season.”
Muller says she worries the sugar shortage will eat into her holiday revenue — an added worry as her deadline to pay her pandemic business loan comes up in January.
Martin Barnett, executive director of the Baking Association of Canada, says the holiday period is when bakeries make the most money in the year.
“If they’re not able to produce the volume that they expected to, it is going to impact them and we may see a few small bakeries have to close,” he told CBC News.
According to the Canadian Sugar Institute, Canada produces approximately 1.2 million tonnes of refined sugar annually — around 94 per cent of which is refined from raw cane sugar imported in bulk to three refining operations in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
The Toronto refinery is owned by Redpath Sugar, while the Vancouver and Montreal refineries are operated by Rogers Sugar Inc., which markets its products under the brand names Rogers and Lantic.
Union at odds with employer
The sugar supply issues being experienced in Western Canada stem from the Vancouver refinery, where 138 striking workers have been off the job since Sept. 28.
Adrian Soldera, president of Public and Private Workers of Canada Local 8, said the union is at odds with Rogers Sugar over issues like wages, benefits and the company’s proposal to increase refinery operations to 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
“Right now, they do about 120 hours a week, which is Monday to Friday, 24 hours a day,” Soldera said. “So they’re encroaching on our weekends.”
Soldera said he’s aware the strike is impacting customers — even at the grocery store level, where customers are experiencing sporadic shortages just as demand from home bakers begins to spike.
“I mean, this must be the highest sugar demand time of the year,” Soldera said, adding he does not know when the strike will end as the union and employer positions remain far apart.
“Even if we went back tomorrow, the sugar won’t really be hitting the shelves in full capacity until the first or second week of December.”
Most severe supply problems in B.C.
While the most severe supply problems appear to be in B.C., the strike’s effects are being felt across the western provinces.
Sarah Foy, candy maker and owner of Volio’s Confections in Calgary, said she has been buying all the sugar she can get for weeks.
Tasha Henderson, manager at Sinfully Sweet Cathedral Bakery in Regina, said while she thinks she has enough sugar right now to make it through the holiday season, the strike at the Rogers refinery has already doubled her wholesale costs.
“We used to pay $24 to $28 a bag, and now we’re paying about $50 to $62 a bag,” Henderson said, adding she expects the bakery will need to increase its own prices in the new year as a result.
“For now, we’re just trying to hold tight for the Christmas season, because we’ve already done all of our promotional documents for our holiday pricing.”
Sugar worldwide is also trading at the highest prices since 2011, mainly due to lower global supplies after unusually dry weather damaged harvests in India and Thailand — the world’s second- and third-largest exporters.
Rogers claims ‘ample supply’ of bulk products
Rogers Sugar said its Vancouver refinery continues to operate, but at a reduced level, and the company is using its other facilities to support customers in Western Canada.
In an email, Rogers Sugar chief financial officer Jean-Sebastian Couillard acknowledged the strike has resulted in localized supply impacts in Western Canada, particularly for brown sugar and some packaged white sugar.
However, he said there is “ample supply” of the company’s other products, including bulk sugars used by bigger food processors and liquid sugars.
Couillard added the company remains fully committed to reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with its workers.
“We recognize that this has created inconvenience for some of our valued customers,” he said. “We apologize for that, and we thank all of our customers for their continued patience as we seek a resolution.”