Cut to the Bone

How changes in meatpacking have created the most vulnerable worker in Alberta

If you eat Alberta beef tonight, odds are it was processed by one of the 2,300 workers at the sprawling XL Lakeside Packers facility just outside of Brooks. The plant is the largest slaughter house in Canada and the largest employer in the region. It began its life in the mid-1970s supplying cow carcasses to other companies. Today Lakeside produces boxed beef. Along with the smaller Cargill Meat Solutions in High River, the plant handles over 90 per cent of the cattle processed in the province.

But who are these workers? Until the 1980s, meatpacking—in Brooks and elsewhere in Alberta—was a decent job. Workers were usually unionized and the pay was good. Edmonton’s four plants made it the meat packing capital of Western Canada. In just a few decades, everything changed. Salaries spiralled downward and jobs were concentrated in fewer and larger plants. The job became more demanding and more repetitive as line speeds increased. Fewer and fewer Albertans were interested in the job, so the packing companies started to recruit from farther and farther away.

Now Alberta’s remaining meatpacking plants are changing again, looking to an even more vulnerable workforce—temporary foreign workers (TFWs). These men and women, recruited from some of the poorest countries in the world, don’t have the same protections as refugees or landed immigrants. Losing their job at Lakeside doesn’t just mean unemployment, for example; it can mean being kicked out of the country.

For Brooks, these changes have meant a population boom and the challenge of providing services to a constant influx of newcomers. Over the last 15 or so years, the city has gone from being a white, blue-collar prairie community to being a multicultural boomtown—“The City of 100 Hellos.” For meatpackers—formerly members of Alberta’s urban working class—these changes have seen them pushed to the province’s margins.

 

When I first visited Brooks in the summer of 1996, I wanted to know what had happened after Lakeside was bought by theUS giant IBP two years earlier (Iowa Beef Processors Inc., now Tyson Fresh Meats). Back in the 1990s, IBP was the beef industry leader. The company had cut costs by building huge slaughterhouses close to supplies of cattle on the US plains. Under the old way of doing business, cattle were sent by rail to be auctioned in stockyards and slaughtered in nearby packing plants, with their carcasses shipped to wholesalers and butcher shops. By locating closer to the animals, IBP saved money: stockyard middlemen were no longer required and the bruising and shrinkage that occur with shipping cattle long distances was diminished.

The company revolutionized meatpacking when it introduced boxed beef in the US in the late 1960s. Instead of shipping whole carcasses, workers removed fat and bone at the plant and vacuum-packed retail portions. Boxed beef appealed to wholesalers and supermarkets since it meant they no longer needed to hire butchers.

IBP is also credited with breaking the power of meatpacking unions and lowering wages. The company argued that its innovative disassembly line of workers, each performing a single task to prepare or break down the carcass, required less skill than work in older plants. Therefore workers should be paid less. The company sidestepped opposition by locating plants in so-called “right-to-work” states, where organizing unions is more difficult. In unionized plants,  IBP fought long and hard to break the unions. It used strikebreakers in several violent confrontations at its Dakota City, Nebraska, plant. The ultimate effect of IBP’s cost-cutting was to radically restructure beefpacking from an urban- to a rural-based industry.

IBP’s innovations would eventually be adopted in Canada, but not without a fight. The country’s three major meatpacking firms in the late 1970s—Canada Packers, Swift Canadian and Burns—demanded wage concessions and shut down their urban plants in an effort to remain competitive. Workers fought back with strikes at plants across the country. In 1984 the United Food & Commercial Workers (UCFW) struck Brooks’s Lakeside plant, but the company broke the union by hiring non-union, lower-paid replacements. In Edmonton, after a six-month strike in 1986, Gainers established a two-tiered pay system with starting wages for new hires at $5 an hour less than what current employees had received.

The industry changed so quickly that none of the old companies except Lakeside remain in business today. Reminders of Alberta’s meatpacking past can be found in north Edmonton’s stockyards along Fort Road, while in Calgaryan old Canada Packers structure has become home to the popular Crossroads Market.

 

“A homegrown business success story.” That’s how the director of the Brooks Chamber of Commerce described Lakeside to me in 1996. She said local people were proud of the company. Lakeside began life as a cattle-feeding operation in 1966 and added a meatpacking plant in 1974. I asked about IBP’s purchase of the plant in 1994 and its expansion plans. She said construction was “running behind schedule” and suggested I meet Garnet Altwasser, one of the company’s founders. One phone call and a day later I met Altwasser, who had been kept on by the new owners to manage the plant. He explained that Lakeside employed about 550 people, but with a second shift and the addition of a boxed beef plant and a rendering and hide facility, another 2,000 workers would be needed.

As we walked along the kill floor, I noticed that most workers were white and they all seemed to know their boss. There were friendly exchanges and knowing nods of the head towards Altwasser as he led me past workers dismembering cattle on the disassembly line. Back in his office Altwasser said that turnover averaged 12–20 workers a month. This would change within a year.

With apologies to W. P. Kinsella, “If you build it, they will come” could easily refer to the mantra of meatpacking executives; their field of dreams is a massive new plant far away from major cities. Yet the reality of staffing such facilities often turns into a nightmare. Packing plants are industrial dinosaurs that have defied mechanization; people are still needed to work the disassembly line and pack boxed beef. The work is relatively low paying, physically demanding, unpleasant and involves workers making hundreds or thousands of repetitive motions daily. The outcome is predictable: workers get injured and quit, or get worn out by the job’s rigours and quit. The end result is the same: high employee turnover. So once a plant is built the challenge is to keep it staffed.

The recruitment effort for Lakeside’s expansion began in earnest in early 1997. The facility’s human resources manager told me in June of that year that after hiring 700 people and seeing a weekly turnover of 40–50, they’d “pretty much exhausted the local labour supply.” So the company expanded its recruitment to the Maritimes, where the collapse of the cod fishery had created high unemployment. A few months later I encountered one of these recruits, a middle-aged man, hitchhiking back into Brooks from the slaughterhouse. He was from North Sydney, NS, and the only one of 15 recruits who still worked at the plant; the rest had gone home. His sole reason for staying on at Lakeside, he told me, was to pay
his mortgage.

With domestic labour in short supply,Lakeside began recruiting immigrants and refugees, working with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, which specializes in placing newcomers in entry-level employment. Meatpacking has long lured immigrants—as memorably portrayed in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel about Chicago’s meatpacking plants, The Jungle—as the work requires minimal English and no specialized training. A local person whose husband worked at the plant explained Lakeside’s attraction to me this way: “It’s a good place to start. You don’t have to make a career out of it—you can work there for a couple of years, save some money, get your feet on the ground before moving on.” By the end of 1998, so many immigrants and refugees were working at Lakeside that the company invited Medicine Hat’s Saamis Immigrant Services Association to provide on-site help with family reunification. Most of their clients at the time came from Iraq, Cambodia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Sudan and Nigeria.

The arrival of so many newcomers to Brooks created a housing shortage and drove up rents. Many workers settled in Medicine Hat, a 100 km drive away, where housing was more affordable. Lakeside provided a chartered bus service between the plant and Medicine Hat; at one point, seven buses a day connected the two cities, with fare deducted from workers’ paycheques. Meanwhile, Brooks was unable to attract private developers to construct rental housing, so Lakeside went into the housing business. A dormitory consisting of trailers with a capacity of 168 employees was erected adjacent to the plant behind a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. The accommodations were sparse, renters were given vouchers for the plant’s cafeteria and two microwaves were provided for those who wanted to heat their own meals. The housing would be torn down a decade later due to mould. Brooks’s housing crunch eased with the construction of about 200 multi-family units between 2002 and 2007 and the collapse of the oil patch in 2008, which prompted many workers to leave town.

From 1999 to 2005, sub-Saharan refugees were a big focus of Lakeside recruitment. This was helped by the company paying a $1,000 bonus for referring friends and family who stayed longer than a minimum period. This growing population resulted in the establishment of the Global Friendship Immigration Centre in Brooks; most of the Centre’s clients were refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan. According to the Centre’s director, Brooks was well known among residents of the Kakuma refugee camp in north eastern Kenya as a place where you could easily get a job and start a new life.

 

As workers settled in, they started to learn about labour rights. Lakeside hadn’t been unionized in nearly two decades since the company broke the union in 1984. Workers became increasingly concerned about their safety. Labour tension increased in fall 2005, when workers struck the plant in an effort to obtain a union contract. The strike had a strong racial dimension. One of the strike’s leaders was Sudanese, and most of the African line workers supported the walkout. Meanwhile, the predominantly white clerical and maintenance employees crossed the picket line and tried to get the union decertified. During the three-week long strike, violent confrontations took place between picketers and strikebreakers despite the presence of the RCMP.

Workers won the right to unionize, choosing the UFCW once again as their representative. But a 30-year veteran of Lakeside told me the strike had a disastrous impact on morale. “Now you have a bunch of guys working, who a couple of weeks ago were calling each other every name under the sun and banging on their cars as they crossed the picket line, and now they’re supposed to act as a team.” Lakeside changed its recruitment strategy after the strike. As one informant told me, “The Sudanese are way down the recruiting list.”

Instead of refocusing their efforts on immigrants and refugees, the company turned to temporary foreign workers. Canada’s TFW program, run by the federal government, is designed to attract workers to fill temporary labour shortages. Companies apply to bring workers to Canada, but have to prove they made all reasonable efforts to hire locals for the job and that wages and working conditions won’t differ for TFWs.

In 2006 Lakeside announced they were bringing 250 TFWs to Brooks from China, the Philippines, Ukraine and El Salvador. Since that announcement, hundreds more have been recruited to Lakeside. As of 2008, 775 TFWs were working in Brooks, most of them at Lakeside. In 2009 Tyson Foods sold Lakeside to XL Foods, a division of Edmonton-based Nilsson Bros., in part because of the rise of the Canadian dollar against US currency. XL Foods expanded the plant’s policy of importing TFWs, adding workers from Mexico and Colombia to its multinational labour force. By early 2011, temporary workers comprised about a third of the plant’s labour force. (Immigrants and refugees already accounted for about 60 per cent of Lakeside’s labour force by 2006.)

A job at Lakeside still appeals to certain workers; an entry-level job in 2011 paid $14 an hour, $21 with overtime. A starting wage at the plant in 1984, however, was about $12 (which in 2012 dollars translates to almost $24). And during so-called “dark days,” when the demand for beef drops off during the winter months, workers are often restricted to 28–32 hours of work and become dependent upon social services such as the local food bank. Finding opportunities for overtime has been more difficult due to the high Canadian dollar and the drop in beef exports to the US.

 

Workers recruited under Canada’s TFW program can’t change jobs and can’t bring family with them. They can stay in Canada for up to four years. When their contract is up, companies such as Lakeside can nominate the workers for permanent residency—if they choose to. This provision is particularly controversial. Critics charge that TFWs won’t complain about working conditions for fear the company will brand them “troublemakers” and send them home. The prospects of permanent residency and family reunification are powerful inducements for workers to “stick it out.”

And Lakeside has seen lower turnover and absenteeism—in short, a docile workforce. The most visible evidence of the success of the TFW strategy is the company sign alongside the Trans-Canada. Ever since the plant’s expansion in the late-1990s another sign had listed the number of jobs available. By 2011 that sign had gone.

If TFWs attain landed immigrant status and are able to bring their families, life does improve. Ever since the first immigrants and refugees began arriving in Brooks, locals have established a support system. SPEC (Support Prevent Educate Counsel) is a non-profit that assists newcomers. Its 35 staff speak 17 languages and provide programs that emphasize early intervention, including Healthy Starts, Building Blocks, Parents as Teachers and developmental screening for immigrant children.

SPEC staff often visit newcomer families at the end of the school week and help decipher report cards and determine which permission slips to sign. Counsellors provide job search assistance for people who don’t work at Lakeside. The organization is currently seeing a growth in demand for their services from Filipinos who came as TFWs and who are now seeking permanent residency. The influx of young families arising from this process is evident in a 31 per cent increase between 2009 and 2011 in the demand for Early Childhood Services in Brooks’s public school system.

SPEC also hosts a Boys & Girls Club, a group for newcomers to practise their English, and a women’s group for craft projects. Yet despite these and other programs, a SPEC employee told me, “We just don’t know how many people we’re failing to reach.” Isolation is fostered by cultural barriers and geography. Many newcomers live on the town’s east side, far from its commercial and service centre. Lacking their own means of transportation, they remain cut off.

The diverse origins of newcomers, whatever their status, have meant that many traditional communication strategies have proved impractical in Brooks. Many newcomers lack any English, some are illiterate in their own language and many have never attended school. The proliferation of languages and dialects, estimated at over 100 in 2006, led Brooks’s hospital to subscribe to Language Line, a telephone-based translator service. This service, which requires that both patient and practitioner wear headsets, does not work well for emergencies. Patients sometimes resort to miming their symptoms, leaving nurses and doctors to guess their ailments. Translations can be inaccurate and clients’ private matters sometimes become public.

Like other small towns, Brooks has a shortage of doctors, and many physicians are unwilling to take new patients. As a result, newcomers often end up in the ER for routine care. In 2009 the chronic doctor shortage meant that expectant mothers had to travel to Medicine Hat to deliver their babies. This situation lasted for 18 months, with over 300 babies born in Medicine Hat to mothers from Brooks, until a full complement of doctors was recruited. For more complicated medical procedures, patients must travel to Calgary. For the many newcomers without cars, roundtrip bus fare is over $70.

The continuous influx of newcomer groups means healthcare workers are exposed to a revolving door of languages and cultures, which presents a challenge in terms of delivering culturally competent care. Newcomers’ limited English presents another barrier to effective care. This problem is particularly acute for women who require information on reproductive health as well as perinatal and postnatal care.

 

On my most recent visit to Brooks, in 2011, I met the mayor and we discussed the changes at Lakeside and in the city itself. He told me that as part of the city’s sustainability plan, Brooks had adopted a policy of being welcoming and inclusive “so that when new residents arrive, they’re effectively welcomed and settled into our community.”

The letters page of the local newspaper provides some evidence that Brooks is embracing its newest residents. A woman from Medicine Hat wrote a letter to the Brooks Bulletin in February 2011 describing the city as “crime-infested,” “filthy” and full of “run-down apartments and rentals and gangs of every ethnicity.” Locals were furious and said as much in the following week’s letters section. As one put it, “I’m proud to belong to a community with so many different cultures to enjoy.” Another acknowledged that newcomers “work their butt off for little pay and get treated like crap.” This is obviously an unscientific sampling, but my conversations in Brooks also suggest residents are thinking carefully about the welfare of their new co-workers and neighbours.

For temporary workers, though, the balance is firmly in favour of the employer, with the threat of deportation hanging over any worker who’s considered disruptive. And as the UCFW recently said in a memo to its members at Lakeside, what’s really needed is a larger culture shift. “Dignity and respect [need] to be the reality—not just a bunch of nice words,” the union wrote. All the letters to the editor in the world won’t do much for the newest workers in Brooks if the meatpacking industry itself goes unchallenged.

From the days of The Jungle to the present, meatpacking companies have always had an uneasy relationship with labour. The use of TFWs is just another chapter in this long and contentious history, another way for companies to reduce costs. The industry, of course, is part of society. Albertans can blame the capitalist imperative to be the lowest-cost producer for the plight of workers in Brooks. They can see the relative decline in wages as reflective of global changes. But they can also look to the laws that Lakeside must follow. Brooks may be witnessing changes first-hand, but every Albertan has a stake in pulling meatpackers back from the province’s margins. #

 

Michael Broadway is co-author, with Donald Stull, of Slaughter-house Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America.

Published in Vol 15, No 4, May 2012, pgs 36-41

 

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