Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Meat packers learning the cost of cutting costs

 The North American meat-packing industry is learning that its relentless cost-cutting approach to business is flawed.

Specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a reliable well-trained work force is crucial.

Those packers who paid minimum wages and recruited from the bottom of the work-force barrel have learned that COVID-19 risks are much greater.

I recall 60 years ago when a job at J.M. Schneiders in Kitchener was coveted because it paid well and workers were well respected by management. But that ended when an industry-wide move forced unions to accept drastic wage cuts.

Today that plant is gone and Maple Leaf Foods is getting its pork slaughtering done in Manitoba with a work force made up of recent immigrants, refugees and temporary-work-permit recruits.

They may be willing to work hard and long hours, but I bet they all wish for a better job. In this atmosphere, it’s hard for managers to elicit enthusiastic support for necessary COVID-19 protection measures.

The situation at Maple Leaf's plant at Brandon, Man., is typical for all fo the industry's large-scale meat packing plants.

When COVID-19 does break out in these plants, management often says it’s workers bringing it in from the community. That may well be true.

And where are these workers living? Often in crowded homes where it is almost impossible to prevent the spread of the virus from infected household members.

Plus, immigrants and refugees are starved for social contact with people who speak their language and appreciate their customs, so it’s hard to persuade them to practice social distancing and to limit contacts to a bubble of no more than 10 people.

All of this is captured in an article in the current edition of Meatingplace Magazine where it reports that “by and large (the meat-packing) is an industry that is very often a job of last resort for the American labour force . . .”

It said there was “widespread absenteeism” when the pandemic hit because workers were frightened and the lockdown meant children were at home and they could not find or afford day care.

What seemed to work for employers was a $2-per-hour increase in wages, the magazine’s reporters learned from interviews with plant managers.

Many have decided that worked so well that they have made the pay increases permanent. It has helped reduce the high rate of turnover in what they term “the bottom 20 per cent” of their workforce.

So it seems that it takes a pandemic to teach the meat-packing industry that the good old days of paying attractive wages and providing attractive working conditions is an important part of the recipe for long-term success.