on the kill floor of Maple Leaf Pork in Brandon, Man., drenched
in blood and guts, drowning in the nauseating stench. I was part
of a new work force moving briskly through the carcasses. This
is world class?
Globe and Mail
in the shadows. In the bowels of a building with walls that sweat
gristle and blood. A modern-day plant, more like Fritz Lang's Metropolis
than Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
in a semi-circle on the kill floor at Maple Leaf Pork in Brandon,
Man. Twenty-five fresh recruits, our mouths agape. Mike, a short,
squat factory-floor veteran, stuffed into a bloody lab coat, is
leading our tour. Hundreds of hogs swing by on a conveyer line;
flayed and shackled up by their hind legs, their heads dangling
by a flap of skin, they smack together like bowling pins.
at the blank faces of the men who thrust in and out of the hogs'
bellies with knives, yanking out glistening tubes of red and grey
entrails, bowels, hearts and livers that will eventually be chopped,
packaged and shipped off for the dinner table.
harvest the farts if we could," Mike offers with a certain
morbid glee. "Yup. We use just about everything. Only 3% of
the pig goes to waste around here.''
suddenly feels like it's caked with the stench of sweat and scared
animals. My head begins to swing like a seesaw.
you dare puke,'' Mike snorts, grabbing at my helmet to take note
of my name, displayed there in bold lettering. "Suck it up,
for a miracle. That I won't toss my cookies. Or worse, be tossed
out tush over teakettle my first day on the job. "It's the
smell,'' I respond weakly. And then with all the moxie I can muster: "I'll
get used to it.''
Mike cocks his head and inhales deeply before he begins a spiel
he's surely mouthed dozens of times before. "You know what
that smell is?'' he growls rhetorically. "That,'' he says,
leaning in for emphasis, "that's the smell of money.''
another man, Michael McCain, believed he could smell the money,
despite the waves of nausea that swept over him as he toured his
first company plant in the mid-'90s. One faction of the feuding
McCain family had just bought a majority stake in Maple Leaf Foods
Inc., following an ugly and very public fight over its French-fry
empire. As company president, McCain had been tapped by his father,
Wallace McCain, to stage a turnaround of Maple Leaf's moribund
the bronzed glass of his elegant Toronto office, McCain cast his
glance south of the border for lessons in how to fix the mess.
It wasn't just his company that was fraught with trouble. It was
the entire Canadian pork industry, sideswiped by the newly competitive
North American framework.
didn't have to look far to see that inefficient plants, older assets
and lack of scale made the Canadian industry significantly less
competitive,'' explains Michael Detlefsen, an executive vice-president
at Maple Leaf Foods. "We needed to build the scale to get
the cost efficiencies that would allow Maple Leaf a competitive
advantage in the global market.''
are we waiting for?'' McCain himself asked provocatively at a conference
of industry colleagues. "Wal-Mart to come to town and put
us out of business?''
down to work with his management team. They drafted a strategy
to build a pork powerhouse, and gobbled up competitors such as
Burns Foods Ltd., which had previously purchased Gainers. The centrepiece
of the company's plan was a world-class processing plant in Brandon.
The location would allow the company proximity to cheap grain to
feed its pigs, space in which to raise them and a ready transportation
route to the burgeoning Japanese pork market. In terms of sheer
size, the Brandon plant's capacity would be staggering: capable,
at full tilt, of slaughtering and processing
90,000 hogs a week. It was to be a technological marvel in a landscape
of aging, lethargic plants across the country. But Maple Leaf also
envisioned cost cuts that would herald a new era of rancour between
the company and its workers.
At the same
time the company was drawing up a blueprint for its state-of-the-art
plant in Brandon, some 2,300 workers were on strike or locked out
at Maple Leaf facilities across the country. It was the beginning
of an aggressive drive to reduce costs through massive wage rollbacks-similar
to the decade-long battles that had already played out in
the United States. Not only had the U.S. industry undergone a staggering
period of restructuring and consolidation, it had also tightened its
grip on workers. In a campaign to slash costs, many American companies
fought the unions very aggressively and drove down wages.
By the time
the Maple Leaf facility opened its doors in Brandon in August,
1999, the company had negotiated a new deal with the United Food
and Commercial Workers Union, slicing wages by 40% at the new plant,
similar to what it had already done in other locations. Brandon's
$150-million plant opened amid great pomp and pageantry, with both
provincial and city
officials extolling its benefits to the community. Everyone, it seemed,
was happy. Everyone but the workers.
than four years later, the plant is struggling to keep its slaughter
and dismemberment in full swing. In an industry just emerging from
a worldwide glut in the meat market, the plant is churning out
45,000 hogs a week-a number it's racing to double in order to reach
capacity by 2005. The bigger problem? Workers are fleeing the facility.
backdrop, I arrive on the doorstep, application in hand. Two weeks
later, I'm hired. For $9.45 an hour, I will work the factory floor
alongside some 1,300 other jawbreakers, pig chasers and kidney
poppers, in one of the most dangerous and gruesome jobs in the
country. Eight hours a day, I'll be in "byproducts,'' slicing
the cheeks out of hogs' heads.
How bad could
it possibly be?
first day on the job. Just past 6:30 a.m., and an orange orb hovers
low on the horizon, casting a faded wash over this pretty patch
of prairie also known as Wheat City, some 200 kilometres west of
Winnipeg. A steady stream of pickups and rusted-out station wagons
is already on the road. Their headlights bounce along a dead-end
stretch of highway, toward a low-slung leviathan of pipe and steel
situated in a field of hay bales, a 15-minute drive from Brandon.
lot is already teeming, filled with dozens of young men in muscle
shirts and women pinched into low riding jeans. They walk two by
two, the sound of gravel skidding beneath their feet. In the distance,
a truck is busy unloading today's hog kill. The constant drone
of the engine muffles the sound of their collective squeal.
Zavaleta is already at work. Splattered in blood as he hacks away
at a carcass to extract the bung-the hogs' intestines and anus.
It's a task he and his brethren will perform 21 times each minute,
10,000 times a day.
upstairs, high above the kill floor, 25 of us are gathered in a
yawning room festooned with posters trumpeting Maple Leaf products:
loins, hams, ribs and pork bellies. The floor beneath our feet
is rumbling, set into motion by the thrum of the butchery below.
a 30-something Maple Leaf labour relations specialist who's dressed
in a company shirt and canvas pants, arrives and pounds the table
with a raft of documents. He's setting the mood by scaring the
bejesus out of us. The statistics aren't pretty. He knows most
of us will leave long before we reach probation, like some 4,000
other workers since
the plant opened. Many because their hands had become too crippled
from working all day with a knife. Or because the work is too dark
extends far beyond the Brandon city limits. In fact, there's a
revolving door of workers across the continent. Turnover rates
of between 40% and 100% annually are common among U.S. industry
behemoths such as Tyson Foods Inc., one of the companies that helped
mastermind the low-wage scale.
How has the
U.S. industry coped? Largely by tapping into a steady supply of
immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America. It's become
a hot button issue in recent years, inflaming two camps: those
who feel that immigrants
undercut American workers for jobs that once paid among the highest
in the industrial sector; and others who say that immigrant workers
are being exploited.
company has come under more scrutiny than Tyson Foods of Springdale,
Ariz., with its 40% Hispanic labour force. Following a sweeping
undercover investigation, Tyson was indicted by U.S. officials
for conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants into its work force.
Though the company was acquitted of the charges in March, one issue
pervade its industry: that of the limited labour pool in North America
for demanding, low-paying jobs. Faced with the same problem, Maple
Leaf has also looked to Mexico and Central America for workers. Foreign
workers now compose 6% of the company's labour force.
does not sit well with Jan Chaboyer, president of the Brandon and
District Labour Council. She believes immigrant workers are especially
vulnerable because they are often too afraid to speak up in the
fight for better working conditions. Some 100 staff, Chaboyer says,
have come to work at Maple Leaf on a two-year visa, and she believes
that "If they're good enough to work here, they should have
to find workers has "hit everybody across the entire meatpacking
industry,'' says Kevin Grier, an industry analyst with the Guelph,
Ont., George Morris Centre, which specializes in agribusiness issues. "It's
not just Maple Leaf. It's also the major packers in Alberta. They're
all facing the same problems.'' He says companies have been forced
to pay low wages to compete in what is a commodity-based business
widely affected by price shifts.
So far, Maple
Leaf's immigrant recruitment strategy has met with mixed success.
Of 57 Mexican workers hired since January, 2002, only 20 remain.
Many fled because they had trouble adjusting to the Canadian way
of life. Some because they believed that the $19,500 or so a year
they earned as a starting wage-poverty level for a family of two-would
stretch further than it proved to in Brandon. All the same, the
company has had more success with workers from El Salvador. All
but one of 44 recruited have stayed with the company, rather than
face the prospect of returning to their impoverished and politically
Maple Leaf Pork's human resources director for Manitoba, denies
that pay scales contribute to the labour shortage. "Our wages
aren't the issue,'' he says, adding that the company's turnover
rate is expected to drop to 80% this year from the 100% it has
been over the past few years." They're actually very competitive
as far as our local market goes.''
Back in the
training room, Panontin is busy working the floor, exalting the
perks that will bulk up our pay packet and keep us punching the
company clock. A perfect attendance record over four weeks? An
extra dollar an hour tacked on to our cheque and a shot at a company
draw for $1,500. We can also rack up "pork bucks," allowing
us to buy our roasts and ribs direct
from the factory floor at just a fraction above cost.
eyes his unlikely group of greenhorns warily. There's Tina, a velvety-eyed
30-year-old mother of four, with hair sculpted like a porcupine.
Her background is in retail. She stares at her hands, folded in
her lap. At the next table, there's Jenn, mid-20s, a golden-haired
anthropology graduate in wide-leg pants who smiles shyly. She looks
least likely to fit in. But, in fact, she may be the hen most suited
to the roost, having worked gutting bears at her grandparents'
hunting lodge in
Northern Ontario. At the back of the room, Joe, a transplanted Newfoundlander
with big teeth and a know-it-all sneer, is fresh from working the oil
rigs in Alberta. And there's Andrew, built like a boulder at 6 foot
2 and 270 pounds. Four years as a short-order cook have given him what
the company values most: knife skills. The group also includes two
Chads, Enoch, Phoebe and Tim, who's back after quitting eight months
ago. He's been assigned to the overnight sanitation shift, cleaning
up hog guts and gore.
hunches forward, resting his beefy hands on the table. A Listen
Up posture. "I just want you to know we're watching you like
a hawk," he warns, surveying the room to gauge whether his
tone has invoked the intended effect. "You have signed an
employee/employer contract with us. We've agreed to pay you a wage
and you agree to come to work. We are looking for commitment."
All we have to do is show up. When we can't, call in. Sounds reasonable.
Panontin gathers his training materials and readies to leave. But
he stops short of the door and swivels: "I just want you to
know I have a really good friend in security at the mall. If I'm
doing an investigation on you, I'll go down there to watch his
security videos. God help you if I catch you goofing off at the
mall on video."
We sit in
silence, beholding our labour representative with a collective
It's a revolving
door of corporate types with pep talks and motivational videos
until we're handed over to Randie Mulligan, our health and safety
trills, entering the training room with her peasant dress in a
whirl behind her, shoes click-clacking across the concrete. Her
blissed-up demeanour clashes with the morning's lecture. With charts
and handouts, she offers tips on good grooming and work-floor hygiene:
how to keep the" product" free of our microbes.
quality of life shouldn't change while you're working at Maple
Leaf," she assures us in one breath, warning us in the next.
Two-thirds of us, it's assumed, will get hurt from everything from
minor cuts to full-scale injuries in the next three months on the
really a bloodbath in there from a human's point of view," says
Todd Scarth, director for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
in Manitoba, who has studied the impact of increased hog production
on labour in Brandon. "The newer plants are faster and far
more dangerous. You combine that with a turnover rate of 100%,
and that's a deadly combination."
with five times the national average of serious injuries every
year, meatpacking is one of the nation's most dangerous jobs. Whether
it's an accidental stab wound from a co-worker, or a fracture from
a falling carcass, the slaughterhouse is rife with perils. Greasy,
slippery floors cause many of the trips and falls. The most common
injuries, though, are due to repetitive strain-the upshot of wielding
a knife at awkward angles all day. It's little wonder: By one tally,
a Maple Leaf worker may make up to six different cutting motions
to 9,000 pieces of pork a day. That's 13.5 million cuts a year.
Still, at Brandon, LeBlanc says, "We have four lost-time accidents
for every 200,000 hours. That's better than average."
time Juan Zavaleta stared down at the conveyer belt, he knew his
body would give out long before the machine ever would. With a
chin affixed to a five-inch tuft of hair moulded into a swirl,
his heavy-lidded eyes reminiscent of a Renaissance painter, the
32-year-old looks an unlikely slaughterhouse worker. In fact, Zavaleta
is not only a trained Mexican butcher, but an accomplished artist
who finds his inspiration in the blood and guts of pigs.
wants to stay on. He's just not certain he can, physically. "Every
job at Maple Leaf is hard. It's messy, brutal work," he says. "You
work eight hours a day, five days a week and your body is going
to wear out."
In 18 months
on the job, Zavaleta has already been injured three times-twice
hurting his back, once breaking a rib-all from pushing into pig
all day, he says. The week I meet him marks his return from two
months of kitchen duty. But his back is flaring up again. He thinks
it's related to long shifts and the equipment he uses on the line,
and told his "lead
hand"-his supervisor's assistant-as much. The response, he says,
caused Zavaleta to take the matter up with his union. He protested
with a formal complaint. The union and the company are investigating.
the nurses' station is busy taking care of today's injuries. We
pass by on our way for lunch at Hamlets, the company's main cafeteria.
A half-dozen workers are slumped in chairs, waiting for treatment.
Inside the caf, the din of the coffee cups is muted by the singsong
of the chain-link belly belts that chime as the workers file in
line for today's grub. The
daily special? Pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy.
hungry. She leans forward, head bowed, one hand on the table, another
holding a cigarette. She doesn't usually smoke. But the anxiety
has been building all morning. In a few minutes, she'll be on the
factory floor, hacking away at a pig's head. She thought she was
a nightmare last night," she sighs softly and pauses. "I
was being chased by hogs' heads. It's still freaking me out." She
draws long on her cigarette, then snuffs it out abruptly like she's
exorcising a phantom.
posse is herded back to the training room, where we'll be fitted
in the costume of the factory floor. Rubber boots with steel toes;
whites still stained with the memory of yesterday's slaughter;
a belly belt to protect the organs; earplugs, a hair net and helmet;
and a mesh glove that extends to the elbow. I'm now dressed to
kill, or at least butcher. I feel like a snow-white Darth Vader.
stands ramrod straight, hands clasped in front of him, looking
like a no-guff factory-floor statesman. Jessie, as he is affectionately
called, a Mexican-trained butcher, has worked his way up to trainer
in less than two years on the job at Maple Leaf. He is to be our
us deep into the basement of the building. A crypt, really, where
there is no clock, no window, no vestige of the outside world.
1:30, and with their bellies full from lunch, workers are busy
single-mindedly hacking pork from shoulder bones. Men on the dressing
floor are pulling bung, livers and hearts, which they place on
a pulley of spikes behind them. If the line fails to keep pace,
the kill men have to slow down, backing up the process. The quotas
must be met or it will mean overtime-part of our collective agreement
with the company. One hour. Two hours. Whatever it takes to get
the job done.
day on the line, and we learn we're in for an hour's overtime.
There's a problem at the gam table, first stop for the freshly
killed hogs as they topple from a tumbler to have their tendons
slit and be skewered up by their hind legs. Several workers are
off sick. Sherri, our floor supervisor, a pretty woman of grandmotherly
vintage, arrives, clipboard in hand. Her heavily caked eyelashes
flutter as she peers out from behind gold-rimmed glasses. "Four," she
finally bellows in a husky voice. "I need four real strong
guys on the gam table."
hands shoot up. Andrew, the quarterback-like former cook, is waving
his arm feverishly. Sherri picks off the men individually: "You,
you, you and you." Andrew smirks, and falls into the parade
of burly men that trail Sherri down the hallway. "I have no
idea what the hell a gam table is. But it's gotta be better than
the gore in there," he avers as he
for the rest of us. Zavala clamps on his hearing gear, slips on
a pair of goggles and motions us through. We enter a room reverberating
in a chorus of hum and hiss, clang and thud. I step over strings
of slippery, yellow gristle and pools of blood, past plumes of
steam that rise from the floor to my workstation.
On the right,
workers are hunched over a conveyer line of disembodied heads.
Some are sawing off ears with pneumatic knives. Others are skewering
heads onto spikes. The thrum of the line triggers the beasts' mouths
in motion, as though they're in conversation. They round the corner,
tumbling onto another conveyer belt. Piled three by three, they're
headed straight at me.
already in a dance of kinetic perfection. With all of the skill
and artistry of a sculptor, he reaches forward, picking a head
up by the esophagus, and begins chiselling. First slicing the cheeks
out of the outside of the head, then the inside. He plops the flesh
onto a smaller conveyer belt below, and thrusts the hog's head
down a chute, on its way to rendering. "Now, you try," he
says, handing me a razor-sharp knife and smiling with encouragement.
I grasp at
a snout, and haul 20 pounds of head toward me. It's heavier than
I imagined and I stumble. The head rolls from my carving station,
falling face up on my boot. Mouth ajar, eyes still open, cheeks
twitching, it stares up at me as if stuck in some sort of somnolent
I do better
next time. Soon, dozens of hogs' heads later, I can feel the blood
trickling down my cheek and seeping into my bra. But what makes
me really woozy is the sensation of warm, sticky flesh on the other
side of my plastic glove each time I lay hold of an esophagus.
time, my carving hand is starting to give out. My back aches. But
it's my cheeks that hurt the most from sucking in my lips all day,
hoping to keep the blood and guts from getting into my mouth.
around the sink to clean the little pieces of fat and meat from
our tools. Jenn's hosing down a scabbard when she lets out a yelp.
The hose has slipped from her grasp, and she's shooting a spray
of scalding water into the face of a fellow worker. The water has
soaked into her glove. Her hand is starting to blister up in welts.
sent off to the nurses' station.
I'm standing in a hot shower, trying to wash it all away. By 7:30,
I'm able to eat for the first time that day. By 8:30, I'm in bed,
dreading the thought of tomorrow.
morning, we gather for roll call. There are three no-shows among
the recruits. Jenn's been pulled from the line and assigned to
kitchen duty while the wounds on her hand heal. Andrew's downing
Tylenols. His body is throbbing from yesterday's work on the gam
table. "It was crazy," he says, his face flaring red
in exasperation. "I couldn't grab them fast enough. It's too
fucking hard. I'd rather pull assholes any day."
mouthy Newfoundlander, wanted a job on the kill floor, but he's
been designated to work in rails, stacking boxes of meat. "First
they tell me I'm doin' this, that I'm doin' that," he declares. "You
don't take a piss unless it's on your scheduled break. This job
No one disagrees.
last glimpse I'll have of most of my fellow trainees, many who
have fanned out across the factory floor to fill in for both injured
and absentee workers. For two more days, I hone my knife skills,
carving into hogs' heads, until I'm both numb with pain and desensitized
to what I'm doing.
By my fourth
day on the factory floor, something odd happens. I'm suddenly feeling
squeamish, ready to puke again at the thought of touching flesh
dead just 42 minutes. For the next few hours, I slow my pace until
I am miraculously granted a reprieve: I've been tapped to help
out in packing for the rest of the afternoon.
I spend the
next few hours picking diaphragms out of a giant tub and packing
them, layer upon layer, into boxes destined for the Japanese market.
I'm working as fast as a rookie can when I hear the lead hand behind
me: "Come on," he roars. "You're holding us up.
I need you to pack like a madwoman."
I begin throwing the organs furiously into boxes until the tubs
that were once overflowing are empty. I leave at day's end alongside
hundreds of workers who spill into the parking lot, carrying their
lunch buckets. Some wait for the bus. Others clamber into their
pickups. In a little more than 14 hours, they'll be back. Living
it, hating it. I know I won't be returning. I can't stomach another
I leave thinking
about The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's muckraking exposé of
the meatpacking industry, published nearly a century ago. In the
novel, he chronicled the appalling conditions of the Chicago stockyards
and the lives of a family of Lithuanian immigrants working in meatpacking
plants. The book sparked an independent investigation into the
industry and helped Theodore Roosevelt push both the Pure Food
and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act through Congress. The
food became safe, but Roosevelt failed to improve the safety and
well-being of the industry's workers.
I raise the
comparison with Todd Scarth of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "There
are important differences between now and then," he says. "No
matter how imperfect the health and safety laws are today, it's
still much better than it was 100 years ago. But killing animals
and chopping them up is dangerous and grisly. The reasons that
meat processing is done this way haven't changed. People in North
America want cheap pork. The cost of that cheap pork is exploited
workers. Those kinds of market pressures haven't really changed."
Zavaleta, the Mexican worker, sums it up best: "It's a big
paradox for the company. They spend millions training us...and
we eventually leave."
It's a particularly
exigent issue given that Maple Leaf is now gearing up for a second
shift at Brandon in 2005, when it hopes to boost itself to 90,000
hogs a week and add 900 more jobs. HR director Steve LeBlanc says
the company is confident it can find enough workers; Maple Leaf
plans to continue to recruit heavily from local aboriginal communities,
whose denizens now compose about 35% of its labour force. It also
foresees bringing up to 12% of its work force from outside the
country, a jump from the current 6%.
these be good jobs? Todd Scarth asks. "Are these jobs safe,
secure, well-paying? Are they the kinds of jobs that would allow
someone to support a family?"
are circulating in executive offices in the U.S. Joseph Luter III,
chairman and CEO of Smithfield, the largest pork processor in the
world, stunned the industry last year when he advocated higher
wages for workers. "Workmanship in the plant suffers when
we have high turnover, and that's a result of paying low wages," he
told a conference.
industry analysts have begun to ponder the logic of Maple Leaf's
pay scale. "Perhaps the strategy of paying relatively low
wages is not so good or not so smart given today's low unemployment
levels," wrote Shawn Allen of Investment-picks.com.
are bigger worries on the Street. Many are keeping a watchful eye
on the company's tumbling profits. Maple Leaf, which this year
swallowed rival meatpacker Schneider Corp. in a $515-million deal,
saw its profit nearly wiped out in the most recent quarter ending
in September. Earnings for the third quarter slipped to $299,000,
or a loss of one cent a share, compared with $19.3 million, or
a gain of 16 cents, over the same period a year earlier. The company
blamed low pork prices resulting from an oversupply of meat proteins
and sluggishness in the Japanese market, which accounts for about
8% of Maple Leaf's sales.
an analyst at Veritas Investment Research Corp., believes an uptick
in pork prices can reverse the tide for Maple Leaf. Still, he believes
the company had much higher hopes for the Brandon plant. "I
think they're disappointed in its performance. I certainly hope
they are embarrassed, because their projections are way off the
Detlefsen says the Brandon plant is going through the same growing
pains as any start-up: "We're tracking industry standards.
The business is not performing to where we'd like it to be because
of the protein glut.We're happy with the plant's performance at
I don't bother calling in to offer my resignation. A few days later,
I receive a registered letter in the mail from the company. It
says they have decided to terminate my employment, effective immediately. "The
company recognizes that this line of work may not be for everyone
and that you may be suited to a different line of work," the
letter reads. "You are advised that should you choose to reapply
for employment in the future, when your situation has stabilized,
your application will be given due consideration."
it up and toss it in the garbage.