A built-in advantage - Macleans.ca

A built-in advantage

Hutterite-run firms don’t pay their workers wages or seek big profits. Competitors say it’s unfair.

A built-in advantage

Tim Smith/Rogue Collective

Competitive spirit might run through the veins of any good businessman, but a handful of Prairie companies say they can’t win the war against some unlikely rivals in the building supply trade—Hutterite colonists. Frustrated by a steady drift of metal roof and siding orders to Hutterite-owned competitors, building supply companies are pressuring the Manitoba government to take action, arguing the market is tilted in favour of Hutterite enterprises because colony members work for free, and because their firms are exempt from certain taxes.

The Hutterites are an Anabaptist sect whose adherents live communally, sharing resources and property on farming colonies that speckle the southern Prairies and parts of the U.S. plains. For the most part, they’ve coexisted peacefully with neighbours, but tensions began rising in the 1990s, when some colonies turned to commercial enterprises to help support their way of life, raising the unexpected question of whether communal living constitutes an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Unlike most private firms, Hutterite businesses are typically run as partnerships shared by every person in the colony. “The youngest person here owns as much of the business as the people from the colony who manage it,” explains Jonathan “Jonty” Wollmann, an assistant minister at Newdale Colony, a southern Manitoba community whose company, Domtek Building Products, offers a wide selection of metal roofing, cladding and ventilation products. The 10 colony members who actually work on the floor at Domtek don’t receive a wage, Wollmann adds, yet proceeds from the firm help pay for their food, clothing and housing. He disputes recent claims the company undercuts the prices of its competitors; its only advantage, he says, lies in the absence of pressure to reap big profits.

His competitors see things differently. Unionized workers in the building supply business pull down between $14 and $25 per hour, they note—a huge expense the Hutterite companies are largely spared (some, like Domtek, also employee non-Hutterites to do administrative work). They also face a reduced burden when it comes to taxes and fees levied on a per-employee basis, such as health premiums, post-secondary education taxes and workers’ compensation fees. “Every year they gain a bit more market share and a bigger customer base,” said Gino Coco, general sales manager for metal building products company Vicwest, in a recent interview with CBC Manitoba. “It takes away from companies such as ourselves who are operating under different circumstances, or different rules and regulations.”

Perhaps, but they’re getting scant sympathy from the Manitoba government. The provincial Finance Ministry regards the Hutterite businesses as standard partnerships, no different from, say, a restaurant jointly owned by family members who cook, wash dishes and wait tables. “Any company has the option of setting itself up in this way,” says Richard Groen, a director at the province’s taxation analysis branch. And while Hutterite companies have been warned in the past to keep their farm and business operations separate—they can’t use farm trucks to transport metal building products, for example—Groen says the government has never seen them as having an unfair edge.

His words no doubt will come as a relief to Wollmann, who turns cool when asked whether the colonies might discuss changing their companies’ tax status or compensation practices. He takes no joy in upsetting competitors, he says, but his people found the competition just as tough when they entered the business back in the early 1990s. “We believe the Lord will guide the way through this,” Wollmann concludes, “just as he has done for us in the past.”


A built-in advantage

  1. Love it! Can any of the free-market-uber-alles ideologues around here (looking at you myl) tell me who they support in this case? Is it the literal communists, or the private enterprises looking for government interference?

  2. Mr. Gino Coco sent out an apoligy for his comments. Are the people who are reporting and editing this magazine not doing their homework.

  3. Have you ever heard of on owner pay himself wages? That's why we Hutterites don't pay wages, the workers are all owners for whatever they do and work for.

  4. hutterites pay their own people more than outsiders do.
    3 big meals a day,,4 or 5 if they want
    houses are supplied
    no junk houses either.
    vehicles are supplied,,,no rusted ones either.
    clothing is supplied,,,,no bleached stuff either,,top of the line coats,,,etc.
    now how can anybody say,,( with a high school education) that hutterites dont pay wages???????
    how mush does it cost to build a 7 bedroom house?
    4 meals aday????
    do ur math

  5. leave the HUTTERITES alone and run your own damn life we don;t bug into your life now do we WELL EXCUSE ME

    • at least when HUTTERITES do a job u can count on it to be done the profeshional way it should be

  6. North American capitalism could learn from this system.
    They all work for the good of each other.
    Look where they greedy system we have has put us. Over 350 billionaires and too many millionaires, while too many working people are losing their homes,cannot find work and have no way of bettering themselves, while thr rich get richer.

  7. This system is flawed to high heaven, ex-hutterite here, get barrage of calls for monetary assistance from next of kin still back in the colony..specially this time of year, this is an advanced form of slavery..most of these people are miserable as hell, they get no compensation whatsoever, their kids are taught from childhood on that leaving is against the will of God, so "fear" is the element that glues them together in most cases, alcoholism is prevalent, political rivalries are common…see Hutterville colony court dispute" where judge had to step in and split colony up, sell proceeds and divide to every member his or her portion,

    • Petros , i can see you are a very bitter ex-hutterite, who needs the new birth. Jesus said , you MUST be born again to see the Kingdom of heaven ! no miserable people , fear , alcoholism…….etc….. where you are now ??????

      • you have no franchise on the new birth,,,,it’s a sovereign gift from almighty God…it was organized religion that killed Jesus Christ..

  8. This is cause for some debate

  9. if everybody lived like hutterite this world wouldnt be so messed up
    im a ex hutterite nd i can honestly say im a proud hutterite and growing up on a colony was the best experience of my life i learned manners unlike most people out in this world
    so all i have to say is all you immature people out there that have anything against hutterites how about you live your life the way you want and we HUTTERITES will live ours the way we have for years