Daniella Dávila Aquije
XL Foods has been at the center of an international recall scandal for the past couple of months. Over 1 million pounds of beef have been recalled from stores in the US, Canada, and even China. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, Canadian Food Inspection Agency President George Da Pont, Alberta Premier Alison Redford, and the Nilsson brothers (XL’s CEOs) have all expressed concern about the E.coli contamination and the health of XL Foods’ consumers. The Nilsson brothers have taken responsibility and temporarily handed over the management of the slaughterhouse to JBS USA. All of these actors have committed themselves to rectifying the crisis and ensuring that the quality of the meat meets the highest safety standards in the future. The consumers are present in these conversations, but where are the workers? More importantly, who are the workers? Why did they not communicate the unsanitary conditions to management? Why did they not uphold good practices in the workplace? The XL Foods recall has served to air Canada’s dirty laundry with respect to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). The connection between the crisis and the TFWP has not been widely made in the media, but to understand this situation fully, it is necessary to delve into the nuances of this policy.
XL is the largest local employer in Brooks, Alberta. Around 2,200 workers were employed at the XL plant before the disaster erupted. Of those 2,200 workers, 2,000 were laid off, and 800 temporarily rehired and subsequently laid off (again). Most of these employees are temporary foreign workers (TFWs). The TFWs are under contract and can only stay in Canada for the duration of that contract. While they can change jobs, they must apply for a new work permit and their new employer must go through a complex process to gain approval for hiring a TFW. This process involves risk and uncertainty, is time sensitive and particularly confusing for TFWs with poor English skills. They make contributions to Employment Insurance yet it is very difficult for them to claim any benefits. Eligibility for EI depends on the unemployed individual’s “availability” for work; since foreign workers are in Canada under a contract with a specific employer, they are not “available” for work for other employers, and therefore ineligible to claim EI benefits. To be “available” for other employers they would have to get a new work permit, which then means that they are employed and therefore still ineligible for EI. Companies are also given the flexibility to pay TFWs up to 15% less than the prevailing wage.
It is thus no mystery that the Temporary Foreign Worker program is the fastest growing category of immigration in Canada. The government facilitates the program, but it is ultimately the employer (in this case XL Foods) who chooses and is responsible for who comes to Canada. The TFW program has become increasingly popular for both the Conservative government and the private sector. The lack of fiscal commitment to these workers makes the program appealing to the government; the low wages and lack of checks and balances make it appealing to employers.
Employees were working in completely unsanitary conditions at the XL plant in Brooks. Between 300 and 320 carcasses went by workers every hour, which meant that workers made between 3,000 and 4,000 cuts a shift. They did not have permanent access to hot water, which made it difficult to get all the manure off cattle before the meat was processed. The speed of the work prevented employees from ensuring all safety standards were met. They often got injured but did not complain for fear of reprisal. They knew that the termination of their contract was a ticket home. Even though mechanisms are available for employees to complain about their working conditions, there is no “whistleblower” protection. It is thus no surprise that these workers decided to stay silent and not cause trouble. If the plant was prioritizing profits over sanitation, then the workers had no choice but to prioritize their own livelihood over the safety of consumers. They could not risk getting laid off even if that meant working in deplorable conditions. They stayed silent attempting to navigate and survive a system where they knew they were disposable.
These individuals are unemployed, with families to feed, remittances to send home, mortgages to pay, and debts to take care of. They live paycheck to paycheck. Government officials have expressed concern about the health of consumers, but who, aside from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, is advocating for the rights of these workers? The federal and provincial governments are more focused on managing their PR than on redesigning a system that has failed TFWs, consumers, and the city of Brooks (which is experiencing an exodus of unemployed people in search for jobs elsewhere). These governments claim to be concerned about the health of consumers, yet the health of consumers is tightly linked to the health, safety, and the rights of the foreign workers employed in these plants.
The XL Foods recall illustrates how poorly designed the TFW program is. This scandal could have been easily prevented had the system not silenced its workers. The TFWP will continue to backfire until the government implements policies that are not exploitative and that offer well-established mechanisms of protection for foreign workers.
Daniella Dávila Aquije is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a BAH in Political Studies and History from Queen’s University. Her interests include immigration and social policy, as well as Latin American foreign policy.