Union Calls for XL worker voices to be heard

The beef recall is the largest in Canadian history and is impacting the plant, the retail outlets, as well as our union Sisters and Brothers, and their friends and family. Please take a minute to read this article, prepared by the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401, about what’s happening at Lakeside. 

Union Calls for XL Worker Voices to be Heard in the Shadow of the XL Foods Safety Crisis. 

The United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 401 is asking XL “Lakeside” and appropriate levels of government, the media, and all policy makers to listen to workers’ concerns as we all contemplate the safety of Alberta Beef. 

As you know, we are facing the largest beef recall in Canadian history.  The Canadian Food and Inspection Agency has shut down the XL Lakeside beef processing plant in Brooks because of an E. coli scare. 

What is the problem at Lakeside? 

During collective bargaining for a new union contract, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 401 raised serious food safety issues and advanced contract proposals to deal with the matter.  We have continuously sought whistle-blower protection so that workers from the shop floor could speak freely to outside agencies about food safety problems in the plant.  The Union has sought and continues to seek a review of line speeds and reduction in line speeds to ensure that workers have adequate time to deal with food safety matters.  Reduced line speeds would also reduce worker injuries and staff turnover.  Too much staff turnover erodes any acquired worker body of knowledge with respect to food safety.  That plant needs to pay its workers better and treat its workers better in a variety of ways to ensure that they stay.  When they stay, their body of knowledge with respect to food safety expands.  Their expertise grows.  They develop a longer term interest in their employment.  Experience and seniority matter! 

At collective bargaining the Union also sought special contract language to ensure that the company gave food safety and worker safety the highest priority.  XL, like other food processors, believes they should self-regulate.  Unions, they say, should confine their demands to issues of wages and benefits. 

UFCW Local 401 believes we have an ethical responsibility to advance both the interests of workers and the interests of the public.  The life and limb of workers needs to be given the highest priority.  The safety of the public needs to be given the highest priority.  Interests in profit and productivity cannot crush the need to protect the wellbeing of people. 

We all want to support Alberta Beef.  We want to support the agriculture industry.  In fact, all food processors need to be held to certain standards… not just XL Lakeside. 

Local 401’s investigation into this matter is ongoing.  We call for new laws and regulation to deal with things like line speed and whistle-blower protection in order to ensure that our food is safe.  We also call for a review of our Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFW).  If is just plain exploitive and frankly, in the area of food safety, is hazardous to our health!  Under that program, temporary workers are dependent on their continued employment to acquire permanent residency in Canada.  Not surprisingly they will not be speaking out about food safety issues if they want to continue to have a job and have a chance to stay in our country. 

During collective bargaining, UFCW Local 401 also tried to introduce new rules with respect to the employment of TFWs and create additional protections for them.  XL Beef would not agree. 

The last few days, in meetings with XL employees, Union Representatives have heard those employees express a variety of concerns that they think contributed to the current food safety crisis and ongoing food safety concerns in the plant.  Here is a sampling: 

  • Line speeds are a serious problem.  Employees are pushed too hard as Lakeside is more concerned, it seems, with the quantity of beef produced rather than the quality of beef produced.
  • Worker safety and food safety are issues that are closely linked. Corporate indifference to life and limb fits all too comfortably with corporate indifference to food safety.  Put another way, the culture at Lakeside needs to change.  Things might look good on paper but policies and procedures need to translate into real values that translate into real behaviours on the floor of the plant.
  • Management has a serious lack of concern for food safety practices.  For example, workers are trained to and want to sterilize knives between cuts but they are discouraged to do so as they would fall behind in their work if they did so.
  • An over emphasis on quantity manifests itself in things like too much beef being stored in coolers.  Workers say that insufficient gaps between carcasses leads to cross contamination. 
  • Sewage backup has been a problem in the plant on both the slaughter and processing floors, which has recently occurred as well.
  • Workers who occupy Quality Control positions are not supported by their bosses.  For example, because of the emphasis on production they have no confidence that if they see a food safety problem that the line can or will be shut down.
  • It is being suggested that washrooms are often dirty and contamination is being tracked from there to the slaughter and processing floors.  There are suggestions that the air circulation system in the plant is poor and that airborne contaminants gather and are not being extracted.
  • Workers have spoken on the matter of inconsistent and vacillating temperatures in the plant.  Temperature change problems give rise to food safety issues.
  • Staff turnover in some areas is a serious problem and experienced workers are being lost too frequently.  Food safety training and expertise is being lost with it.
  • Many workers – especially those who have worked for both XL and Lakeside’s previous owner, Tyson – are wondering if XL has what it takes to run the facility.  XL has historically been a cattle company and not a beef processing company. 

Food safety is a corporate responsibility.  The company is happy to collect money for their product, but they have certain responsibilities.  We believe the company also has a responsibility during this timeframe to its workers.  The employees are not at fault and they should be paid while the plant is not operating.  The company has not only a moral responsibility but a common sense business one.  If they do not pay the workers they are going to leave Brooks.  If and when the plant begins to operate they will have insufficient staff.  They will lose additional food safety expertise at a time when they will most need it.  The Union has written to the company and asked them to pay workers during this interim timeframe.  The company has not responded or made any commitment.  Just as the company is not speaking to the public as they should, they are not communicating with the certified bargaining agent or their staff in any meaningful way.  Our position that there needs to be more openness and dialogue is reinforced.  Food safety is everyone’s business! 

UFCW Local 401 supports meat inspectors and their Union.  They have called for a public inquiry into this matter and we support that suggestion.  On this site you will see an excellent commentary on that matter as set out by Union leader, Bob Kingston. 

UFCW Local 401 wants to see the XL plant up and running.  It is a source of employment for many workers who need those jobs.  The functioning of the plant is critical to the Brooks economy, and the Alberta economy, and the beef industry.  But what has happened should be a wakeup call to everyone.  We need to listen to the voices of Alberta workers.  Changes need to be made and their stories and experiences will tell us where we need to go. 

Criticism and debate are not bad things.  If we want to look at a piece of Alberta beef and be confident that it is the best product in the world we need to be reassured that it was produced and processed properly.   If everyone has had their say and all of the necessary checks and balances and rules have been created, the long term reputation of Alberta Beef will be protected and ensured.