Three-quarters of the workforce at Maple Leaf Foods' Brandon plant are immigrants. ((CBC))

Employees at the Maple Leaf Foods hog processing plant in Brandon, Man., have approved a new contract that holds the company accountable for helping foreign workers gain citizenship.

The 2,300 workers voted 78 per cent in favour of the five-year deal, which includes wage increases and job reclassifications that will result in pay raises of up to nine per cent as well as improvements to the pension plan.

The contract also includes new rights and protections for temporary foreign workers. Three-quarters of the meatpacking company's workforce are immigrants, the majority of whom are fast-tracked into the country under Manitoba's provincial nominee program, which began in 1998.

Maple Leaf Foods, which processes 86,000 hogs each week at its Brandon plant, has had trouble recruiting local workers. It spends about $6,000 to recruit and train each foreign worker it brings in.

"This is not a temporary foreign worker program for us. It's just an avenue to allow them to get into the country," said plant manager Leo Collins.


The contract with Maple Leaf Foods includes new rights and protections for temporary foreign workers. ((CBC))

He said the company's goal is to train and retain long-term employees, and it has been working. The annual staff turnover rate was about 80 per cent just seven years ago. Now, it's 11 per cent.

William Cruz moved to Brandon from El Salvador in 2002, lured by the prospects of a job and a new life in Canada. He said the deal will provide the security to create that better life.

"I hope there is going to be a very good contract now [and we will] get a little bit more — not just because we need more money in order to live; we have to look after our family members back home and if we get more money, we can help people back home," he said.

Cruz met his wife, also a foreign temporary worker, at the Brandon plant. The couple considers themselves lucky to be in Manitoba.

In Manitoba, temporary foreign workers can apply for their landed immigrant status after six months and then for Canadian citizenship.

"For me, [it] is very good experience on my life," Cruz said.

'That takes the pressure off the worker who's there and also allows them to concentrate on other areas.' — Robert Ziegler, UFCW

Robert Ziegler, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, said the contract will take a lot of the worry off the shoulders of the workers.

"It's one thing to do your job, but then to worry about all the paperwork? So we got the company to agree that they will process the paperwork as quickly as possible," he said.

"That takes the pressure off the worker who's there and also allows them to concentrate on other areas."

Maple Leaf Foods has also agreed to translate the contract and employee handbook and provide translators for foreign workers.

Too much power granted to corporations 

Sima Zerehi, a Toronto-based immigration activist, is critical of the provincial nominee program, which she believes undermines federal immigration standards.

She worries that by allowing Maple Leaf to help fast-track the immigration process, the nominee program gives too much power to corporations.

'We're contracting out the decision on who gets to select new Canadians.' — Sima Zerehi

"We're contracting out the decision on who gets to select new Canadians," she said, adding that workers are dependent on their employers for the right to stay in Canada, creating the potential for exploitation.

Jennifer Howard, Manitoba's minister of labour and immigration, disagreed. She said the nominee program does not sidestep the federal rules — it's just quicker.

"If you're here for six months and you have permanent employment, you can apply through the provincial nominee program [for immigration status]. Your eventual status is still decided by the federal government but it's a quicker application process than most other jurisdictions," she said.

"So the opportunity for you to become a citizen is offered to you much sooner than it is in other places."

In 2008, more than 1,300 foreign workers were approved to become permanent residents in Manitoba.