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Maple Leaf poultry plant plucks more than chickens

Abuse of Temporary Foreign Workers underlies labour dispute

EDMONTON, Oct. 7 /CNW/ - Maple Leaf Foods' misuse of the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program is an attempt to maintain an artificially low wage in their poultry plant according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1118 and is a key element in the ongoing strike at the plant.

"Canadians were assured by the government that TFWs would always be paid fair market wages and promised that employers like Maple Leaf would not be able to use them to lower our standard of living - but that's exactly what's happening here," charges Jack Westgeest, UFCW 1118's Northern Director.

"Maple Leaf made a bunch of promises to both the union and the TFWs - promises they have not kept." There are 98 TFWs at the Edmonton poultry plant, comprising one-third of all workers in the plant.

"Our union supported the company's original plan to bring in TFWs," says Westgeest, "because we had a positive experience working with TFWs at Olymel meat packing in Red Deer. But, instead we saw abuse, threats and broken promises. We have cases like 17 workers housed in a duplex - and many of them in what can only be described as derelict housing. We have workers deceived when they are recruited from abroad with falsehoods about company benefits and opportunities for gaining Canadian immigrant status and other benefits." Westgeest says workers are told they will earn $15 an hour if they come to Canada, but are not told that is the top rate which is reached after 2 1/2 years (most TFWs are eligible for only 2 years).

"If any of the TFWs try to speak up, they are threatened with deportation," adds Westgeest.

"The company even brought in more TFWs when they knew that a labour dispute was looming, which is against the program rules," charges Westgeest. "The intent to undermine negotiations and restrain workers fair market wages could not be more blatant."

Workers at the poultry plant, situated on the east end of town, have been on strike since September 21, and are looking for parity with competitors. Since the strike, the company has refused to contact the union, despite efforts on the union's part to restart negotiations. Instead, the employer distributed a biased "question and answer" sheet directly to strikers. The union continues to look for negotiations.

"Amazingly despite the threats and their vulnerability, virtually all of the current TFWs in the plant support the strike and the union," says Westgeest. "We got a 94.6% strike vote - and over 80 of our 98 TFWs are walking our picket line. We know that they are with us despite hearing all kinds of threats and innuendoes about possible repercussions, and the fact they are living in employer-supplied housing."

"The other workers on the picket line understand how much courage these people are showing," concludes Westgeest, "the strike has made all of us realize that it is Maple Leaf that is the problem and that we can only win if all of our members - Canadian and temporary foreign worker alike - continue to stand together."

  • ufcw [at] ufcw247 [dot] com