Maple Leaf Foods: A revealing look into how immigrant labour helps Big Business keep wages low and working conditions down

Hogtown, Manitoba

An investigation into one factory’s radical impact on labour and the environment in a prairie town

by Sheldon Birnie

The meatpacking industry once provided thousands of Canadian workers with a decent living wage. Thanks in part to globalization the industry now employs far fewer people at wages that have essentially been frozen since the mid-1980s. These days, many meatpacking employees are temporary foreign workers who must sign restrictive contracts with their employer for a chance at attaining Canadian citizenship.

Maple Leaf Consumer Foods’ hog processing plant in Brandon, MB, is the largest such plant in Canada. Employing over 2,200 people, it is the primary economic driver for the booming “Wheat City.” By all accounts, Maple Leaf’s facility, opened in 1999, is a modern, world-class processing plant. The facility expanded in 2008 increasing its processing capacity to over 85,000 hogs a week, totaling over 4 million annually. Yet despite its impressive size and modernity, the facility has struggled with retaining workers as the work is hard, repetitive and undesirable for many.

In 2003, the annual turnover rate at Maple Leaf was well over 100 per cent. To satisfy its need for labourers and to reduce turnover, the plant began recruiting workers from abroad. Maple Leaf’s Brandon facility now employs over 2,200 hourly, unionized workers, the majority of whom are either temporary foreign workers or new residents who have passed through the foreign worker program.

“When the turnover was really high, my understanding is that it was in the early stages of the plant, and there’s a lot of growing pains that happen with that,” explains Blake Caruthers, Communications Officer with UFCW Local 832, representing the workers at Maple Leaf. “Once they started using the temporary foreign worker program, people were staying and making Brandon their home.”

The annual turnover rate has been reduced to below 100 per cent, due in part to the hiring contracts that temporary foreign workers and many immigrant workers are required to sign. In order to qualify for fast-tracked landed immigrant status, temporary foreign workers must agree to extend their six month contracts for another two years at Maple Leaf.

“You have a more or less captive labour force, based on immigration,” says Joe Dolecki, Professor of environment and economics at Brandon University. “It [is] much the same as the old indentured servitude model.” Many of the jobs at Maple Leaf in Brandon are unskilled positions, with starting wages hovering around a dollar or two above the provincial minimum of $10 per hour, totalling approximately $19,000 a year. According to Caruthers, skilled labourers at the plant can earn as much as $18 to start, not including shift premiums offered to employees.

In addition to the relatively low wages, the work conditions are far from ideal. “The work is not only hard,” says Dolecki, “it’s physically debilitating for people.”

“It was pretty shitty work conditions,” says Geoff Mann, a former line worker at Maple Leaf in Brandon. “I would stand in one spot, literally, for two hours, then get a coffee break, then stand in the same spot again for two hours, and so forth. A pig leg, a loin, would come down the line, and I would turn it,” he explains. “Turn, turn, turn. It was coming lengthwise, so I would turn it the other way, and it would move on to the next person, who had to do a specific cut.” Mann, who is now 32, kept the job for three months in 2002 before finally quitting to attend Brandon University. “Your feet would just freeze,” Mann recalls as the factory is temperature-controlled to prevent meat from spoiling. “It didn’t matter what kind of socks I wore, my feet would freeze, standing in one spot all the time. You couldn’t walk around to warm them up, you could rock or maybe take one step to the side and back.”

Mann remembers shift premiums being used at the plant as incentives to combat absenteeism. If a worker showed up on time every day for an entire month, they would receive an extra dollar per hour worked. Shift premiums still exist but Mann sees the terms for getting this financial bonus as unrealistic for most workers, especially those with young families or those who are single parents. “Say if you missed one day or [were late for] 15 minutes one day because your kid had a doctor’s appointment, then you’re losing out on that one dollar an hour for 80 hours a pay-cheque, for a whole month,” he said.

Martyn Conrad, who worked at the plant between 2002 and 2003 as a wash bay attendant, recalls a lack of employees and workers not showing up on time or at all. “It was my job to clean and return large, bloodied metal bins that once contained various pig parts, back to the production line,” Conrad explained via email. Conrad kept the job, working from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday, for almost a year before finally quitting.

In the early 1980s, managers of many Albertan meatpacking plants aimed to drastically increase profits on the backs of unionized workers. Plant owners followed the lead of their US counterparts, who—through reorganization, hostile takeovers and other extreme tactics—reduced or eliminated many of the gains made by workers since the Second World War. Albertan meatpackers responded with a series of strikes which lec to job cuts, lowered wages and reduced benefits.

In 1986, Peter Pocklington, former owner of Gainers meatpacking and the Edmonton Oilers, told Alberta Report, “The unions are very self-serving.” At a time when union workers were paid around $1800 a month he said, “In Taiwan, workers get $300 a month for the same job. And Taiwan isn’t that far away by air. [Unions] need to find out what the new realities of business are.”

The “new realities” of globalized business are clear to unions in Canada today, as wages and benefits have been scaled back dramatically since the 1980s. The strike-breaking tactics used by Peter Pocklington and the management at Gainers forced the UFCW to accept major concessions at the bargaining table for years to come.

In 1986, hourly wages were between $8 and $12 for meatpackers. Today, at Maple Leaf, hourly wages start at $12 and go to a maximum of $18 for skilled positions. Taking inflation into account, wages are lower now than they were in 1986.

The meatpacking industry itself, like many other industries in Canada, has turned to globalization to fill demand for workers. Since the introduction of the “temporary foreign worker program,” Maple Leaf has successfully recruited workers abroad by offering “fast-tracked” immigrant status to temporary workers who complete their initial contract with the company, and who agree to sign on to a contract extension as landed immigrants.

To accommodate these new workers, UFCW Local 832 has pushed to have the collective bargaining agreement and workplace information available to workers in four languages: English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Ukrainian. “It was the first of its kind in Canada,” Caruthers says of the collective agreement. “You’ve got to give Maple Leaf credit for that, because it was not a hard bargaining issue with them. They understand the value of keeping their employees, our members, informed of their rights, and they realized that the better everybody understands the collective agreement, the better the workforce.”

While the UFCW has been successful — and groundbreaking — in securing rights for its foreign members, temporary foreign workers at other work places in Canada are still without the rights and protections of Maple Leaf employees. Apart from rights to translators, temporary foreign workers only recently secured the right to an expedited arbitration process in cases where they have been terminated, allowing them to remain in Manitoba until the issue is resolved. Agricultural foreign workers in southern Ontario and foreign workers in northern Alberta’s oil patch are often lacking information about worker’s rights and without many of the benefits included in the collective bargaining agreement between Maple Leaf and the UFCW.

For the first time in years, Brandon’s schools are filling up, houses are being built and new businesses are opening their doors. It is clear that Maple Leaf Commercial Foods’ Brandon plant has positively increased population growth in the community, which has in turn spurred the economy forward at a rate unseen for decades. The vacancy rate in Brandon is now less than 0.5 per cent and the unemployment rate sits at about 2.8 per cent.

Growth comes at a cost that is more difficult to quantify. The success of Intensive Livestock Operations (ILOs) — often disparagingly referred to as “factory farms” — that feed the processing plant in Brandon comes on the backs of small, rural communities already struggling with demographic change and losses of basic services.

Of the 85,000 hogs processed weekly in Brandon, over 60,000 are sourced from hog producers in Manitoba, while the rest come from eastern Saskatchewan. Only Quebec produces more hogs annually than Manitoba. Today, only 10 to 15 per cent of hogs produced in Manitoba are by small-scale “traditional” livestock operators producing less than 1,000 hogs. A transition from small-scale hog production to ILOs began in the 1990s, and has continued to the point where over 50 per cent of hogs in the province come from massive ILOs that house 5,000 or more hogs.

Critics of ILOs charge that such large-scale operations have negative social and environmental impacts on rural communities. Farmers and rural residents in south western Manitoba were concerned about the shift towards ILOs that taking place as early as 1999, presenting arguments before the Citizen’s Hearing on Hog Production and the Environment. Residents had organized the hearing in anticipation of the opening of Brandon’s Maple Leaf plant, the results being presented to the province in early 2000.

“Often you’ll find in rural Manitoba, when ILOs are proposed, a great deal of hype about contributing to the growth of small communities that have experienced population declines,” explains Dolecki, who has written repeatedly on the subject of ILOs. “Almost none of that stuff pans out, almost none of those spin-off benefits pan out.”

Dolecki argues that large-scale operations tend to replace smaller independent operators. This puts further negative pressure on rural communities, which are already struggling to survive. Before the policy landscape shifted to favour ILOs in the 1990s, there were upwards of 4,000 hog producers in the province. Today there are fewer than 800. “Large barns can be run be with only a few people,” says Dolecki, “because they’re so heavily mechanized and computerized. This does not enhance the possibilities of using that as a catalyst for the restoration of rural populations.”

Maple Leaf isn’t the only large-scale hog processing plant in Manitoba. Hytek’s plant in Neepawa processes over 900,000 hogs annually, the bulk of which are Manitoba-raised. In order to process such high numbers of hogs, large meatpacking plants require a constant and reliable supply of animals. By dealing with large-scale producers, hog processors like Maple Leaf are able to guarantee their production goals. However, ILOs, along with other intensive agricultural practices, have been blamed for much of Lake Winnipeg’s current pollution problems, as well as pollution in southern Manitoba and the Interlake region, where intensive hog operations are common.

Since the early 1990s, Lake Winnipeg — Canada’s eighth largest freshwater lake — has faced increasing problems with algal blooms. Algal blooms are fueled by high availability of nitrogen and phosphorus in the aquatic environment. These substances can be introduced into the waters through the addition of sewage and fertilizers in a process known as eutrophication. At the height of summer, many beaches at the south end of the lake are closed due to health concerns related to the algal blooms. Further to the north, fisheries are negatively impacted when eutrophication runs rampant, as it has been in Lake Winnipeg for the past twenty years.

Degradation of the environment as a result of industrial agricultural practices is difficult, if not impossible, to put a price tag on. While the full cost of remediation at this point is unknown, it will undoubtedly be borne by tax payers for years to come.

Currently, the Manitoba government offers up to $26 million annually directly to hog farmers to improve manure management, and to reduce the risk of contaminating water with excess phosphorus and other pollutants, explained Manitoba Agriculture, Food, and Rural Initiatives in an email. This is provided through the Manure Management Financial Assistance Program.

“I did an estimate for the Clean Environment Commission on the environmental subsidy that was involved in hog production as of 2005,” recalls Dolecki, who totaled the estimated cost of clean-up and site reclamation required to deal with the pollution caused by ILOs in Manitoba. “In 2004, I estimated it to be between $125 and $140 million dollars a year, while the net income for the hog production side was about $100 million a year. So, if you made the hog industry pay the full cost of clean up and waste disposal, the industry would have imploded.”

Although The Dominion contacted the senior Human Resources manager at Maple Leaf’s Brandon plant to comment, Maple Leaf refused to participate in an interview.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer, editor, and song & dance man living in Winnipeg, MB.

Questions? Comments? Drop us a line: info@mediacoop.ca.

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