News  Immigrants drawn to rural meat-packing

Brooks, Alberta is a slaughterhouse town. The town’s largest employer, Lakeside Packers – a meat processing plant acquired by American multinational Tyson Foods in 2001 – staffs about 2,400 employees, including many of Dinka origin from southern Sudan.

Because Dinka society is centred on cattle in bride wealth exchanges and inheritance, some academics consider this employment ironic because Southern Sudanese at the plant slaughter cows.

“The meat-packing world is a harsh world…. It’s physically and psychologically exhausting…. It’s not the kind of work most Canadians want to do,” explained Carol Berger, sessional lecturer in the Anthropology Department at McGill who carried out fieldwork in Brooks between 1999 and 2005 for her masters thesis on southern Sudanese Dinka immigrant workers at Lakeside.

Berger, however, cautioned against romanticizing links between the Dinka and their cattle, explaining that cattle shaped their worldview because it ensured their livelihood.

“[The Dinka in Brooks] are practical people,” Berger said. “[Cattle] are bank accounts on hooves.”

Assured or anticipating employment, foreign workers immigrated to Brooks.

Some of the southern Sudanese in Brooks have bought houses, married, and begun having families, demonstrating a commitment to their lives in Alberta, Berger said. According to Lakeside, some immigrant employees have been with the company for 15 years. ­

Yet over the course of her fieldwork, Berger observed systematic discrimination against some of the Dinka living in Brooks.

“Sudanese have trouble getting rental accommodation, [experience] racial epithets, and simple, stupid prejudice that suggested that people coming from Africa will by definition be a problem… It’s real cowboy county,” she said.

Of the 1,100 visible minorities in Brooks, the majority are Dinka. The 2006 Canadian census reported that 2,080 immigrants live in Brooks, up from 640 in 1991. In the same time frame, Lakeside Packers underwent a massive expansion that saw the installation of machinery capable of slaughtering 4,700 cows daily, creating 1,600 new positions.

The slaughterhouse employees also face difficult work conditions. Lakeside employees may be stationed on the kill floor, where the animals are slaughtered, “on the knife,” where they cut cows into pieces, or on trimming duty where fat is sliced off of slabs of beef. The kill floor is the only area of the plant that isn’t refrigerated at temperatures below 10 degrees Celcius. Some of Berger’s informants who found the cold stressful requested to work on the kill floor where temperatures rise to about 30 degrees.

According to Andrew Plumbly, the Director of Global Action Network, a Canadian environmental organization that investigates the treatment of animals in the meat-packing industry, said slaughterhouses are known for some of the worst working conditions and highest injury rates in the country.

“You’re freezing…there are sharp saws, blades, and the rest of it. It’s hard and dangerous. You slaughter animals that don’t want to be and tend to become very animated,” Plumbly said.

Lakeside maintains injuries are few because routine machinery checks are performed nightly. The company has staff doctors constantly on site.

Faced with such difficult work, its high employee turnover rate is not surprising. Chronically understaffed, Lakeside is forced to look outside of Canada for employees like the Dinka. Currently a slaughterhouse recruiting team is on a mission in the Philippines.

A Lakeside employee who requested anonymity explained that the company undertakes recruiting missions across Canada and in the developing world that include numerous information sessions, interviews, and medical exams to place candidates in the appropriate department.

“You go and bring back new workers. We’re always looking,” she said.

Yet recruitment missions targeting foreigners are not characteristic of all slaughterhouses across the country.

Elizabeth Dembil, the general director general of Carrefour de liaison et d’aide multi-ethnique (CLAM), an organization that helps immigrants in Montreal find employment, said meat-packing plants around Montreal are not staffed by immigrants.

“[Slaughterhouses] try to recruit, but [immigrants] are not interested. Canada chooses [immigrants] that are educated…. Are you going ask an engineer to be a meat packer?” she said.

Lilydale, a chicken processing plant 45 minutes outside of Montreal, does not deliberately recruit immigrant workers.

“We collect resumes and hire employees like any other company,” Connie Smart, Lilydale corporate communications manager, said.

Outside the Lilydale plant, older Quebecois women in lab coats and hard hats took smoke breaks while there were no visible minorities in sight.

Statistics Canada’s 2006 census reported that visible minorities make up 22.8 per cent of Quebec’s population, and only 13.9 per cent in Alberta.