Workers at baby formula plant claim harassment by managers

Employees at the Canada Royal Milk plant in Kingston, Ont., say management treated them like “minions” — denying them safety gear that fit, harassing employees by accusing them of being “overpaid” and less hardworking than workers in China and — in one case — unnecessarily touching a worker during a heated dispute.

Workers who said they feared for their physical safety on the job report their mental health suffered as well

Current and former employees of Canada Royal Milk in Kingston, Ont. have accused the plant's management of harassment. CBC News is protecting their identities because they fear a backlash for speaking out. (Marc Robichaud/CBC News)

Employees at the Canada Royal Milk plant in Kingston, Ont., say management treated them like "minions" by denying them safety gear that fit, harassing employees by accusing them of being "overpaid" and less industrious than workers in China and — in one instance — making physical contact with a worker during a heated dispute.

Efforts to organize and certify a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers have been tied up in hearings for the past year, while employee turnover at the plant in its early months of operations was constant.

"What I would see every day? The production guys being treated like dirt, especially by the one manager, every day," said one person employed in a different role in the plant. He said he felt compelled to speak out on behalf of more vulnerable workers.

CBC News is protecting the identities of five current and former employees who shared their experiences because they fear a backlash in their community.

These workers said they are afraid someone will get killed at the plant. They've described malfunctioning plant equipment and a workplace culture they claim doesn't take industry standards and safety precautions seriously. They've also reported concerns about the way employees are treated by management.

The plant, a subsidiary of China Feihe International, is managed by a team of executives from both China and Canada. Its workforce is diverse.

"We were told at one meeting by the production manager, basically, go home and tell your wife and kids you probably won't be going to see them for the next couple of weeks because we have a deadline we have to meet," one former worker said. "At that point, I basically told him to go f--k himself."

Another worker said a manager mentioned that in China, when something broke or things moved at too slow a pace, the company would just take a worker's paycheque away. 

"We're just like, what? You can't do that," the employee told CBC News.

The employee said the manager told his Kingston staff they were overpaid and that in China, an employer could get five people to do what they do for half of their wage.

"I started questioning myself every day," the employee said. "Am I that bad of a person or that bad an employee that I deserve to be treated like a second-class citizen?"

Long hours, inadequate compensation

Employees said the plant broke provincial rules on compensation for overtime. They said some workers are forced to work 16 or even 20-hour shifts.

They said they were told to bank their overtime but often found discrepancies between what they knew they'd worked and what the payroll records showed.

"Time off was very few and far between," one said. "And when you were [off], it almost seemed like you were getting in trouble for it."

Workers also had to fight to get access to benefits when their six-month probationary periods were over.

Leng Youbin is the chairman of China Feihe Limited, which owns Canada Royal Milk. (Zhang Wei/China News Service/VCG/Getty Images)

"For a multimillion dollar company, they were the most disorganized people I've ever seen in my life," a worker said. 

Employees were promised good pay, then were told they couldn't have it because the plant wasn't bringing in money yet, despite appearing to spend "left, right and centre," one worker said.

"I have been working since I was 13 years old and I never worked for somebody that disrespected me or disrespected anybody as much as these people ever did," he said. "You were treated like an absolute bag of crap." 

Management wanted 'minions,' workers say

The plant's parent company sent over a team of Chinese managers to oversee construction, commissioning and production for its $332-million investment.

Training was offered in an attempt to bridge cultural gaps between what the managers were used to in China and what workers in Canada expected from their employer — but tensions remained.

"It was a little joke around there that they wanted us to be their minions," said one worker who did physical labour. 

He said he was told he had to wear cheap uniform footwear that didn't fit him properly. "It was extremely uncomfortable. They didn't care, they just wanted everybody to look exactly the same — 'Shut your mouth, do your job.'"

He said he worked 12-hour shifts on concrete floors. He said he asked if he could pay for his own footwear if he found something that met the safety standards.

"I was told absolutely not, that it would not happen," he said.

After putting up a fight, he said, he got boots similar to what he'd worn in other food factories, while others were still walking around in pain.

'They were afraid to speak up because they didn't want to lose their jobs," he said.

Employees reported experiencing a similar problem with respirators and other personal protective equipment, even though they were working in an environment where dust often lingered in the air as milk powders were processed and packaged.

CBC News has blurred the faces of these employees, sent in to clean up with shovels after milk powder clogged and spilled out of the baby formula plant's milk drying system. (Name withheld)

CBC News was shown a photo of an equipment malfunction that resulted in milk powder being sprayed all over the room. It was so thick that workers had to clean it up with shovels.

Workers said they felt the blue surgical masks they were issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19 weren't sufficient protection for these kinds of tasks. 

One worker with chronic lung issues said he believed the air quality in the plant made him sick on more than one occasion.

His doctor wrote a note documenting his condition, and he purchased another mask that he felt offered better protection. He said the company told him he couldn't wear it until he got a second medical opinion. He told CBC News that when he protested, he was sent home without pay.

Inappropriate touching

This employee had a particularly difficult relationship with plant management.

One day, he said — when equipment wasn't working properly and tensions were running high — a dispute in a control room escalated to the point where his manager reached out and touched his shoulder. The employee said he was pushed to sit down, while the manager called it an "attention-getting" tap.

The employee said he didn't know what to do.

"This is my boss. I need this job … If I mouth off, I'm probably going to get fired. But is this even acceptable?"

He said other employees who witnessed the incident encouraged him to speak up.

"They're like, 'Man, you know that's not right. That's definitely not allowed in Ontario.'"

This image of employees at the Canada Royal Milk facility in Kingston, Ont. was submitted as evidence in the company's hearing before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. CBC News has blurred the faces to respect their privacy. (Canada Royal Milk/Ontario Labour Relations Board)

At the worker's request, the company's human resources department hired a former police officer to investigate the incident. 

CBC News has seen the external investigator's report from last May. While it disputed some of the worker's allegations, it ultimately concluded that the manager violated both the company's violence and harassment policy and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Employees said that while this manager didn't bother that particular worker afterward, he continued to bully others. 

In late July, a complaint was filed with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development alleging Canada Royal Milk failed to conduct another harassment investigation.

"It is not the role of the ministry inspectors to resolve or mediate specific allegations of harassment in the workplace," the inspector wrote in a response obtained by CBC News under Ontario freedom of information law. Although this document was labelled a "field visit" report, it says the investigator worked "by electronic communications only." 

No orders were issued.

Canada Royal Milk declined an interview request from CBC News. In a statement, it said that its operations "were delayed and impacted by the global pandemic, but the health and safety of our employees continues to be our top priority.

"The company makes every effort to foster a respectful and productive work environment, and we have policies and procedures in place to ensure we meet that commitment."

Union accuses company of misrepresenting work

Before reaching out to government inspectors or CBC News, employees tried to improve their workplace by organizing a union to represent them.

A vote was held in March 2020, just as the pandemic began. The outcome was narrowly in favour of certifying with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. But eight ballots were disputed and sealed — enough to tip the balance away from unionization.

The union is arguing that the company misrepresented the work some of the disputed employees perform — by classifying them as production staff when, in fact, they play administrative or even management roles.

Canada Royal Milk employees held a vote last March to certify a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers, but the result has been tied up in labour board hearings for the past year. (Marc Robichaud/CBC News)

"They want 100 per cent control of their building, they want 100 per cent control of their product. They do not like being told what to do," one said. "They feel that a union would step in and basically give the rights back to the workers, and they don't want that."

"Workers at the Canada Royal Milk plant in Kingston have many serious concerns about their workplace health and safety, as well as how they were treated by management — issues which no worker should have to face," Tim Deelstra of UFCW Local 175 told CBC News in an email.

"The union is looking forward to having the certification with the Ontario Labour Relations Board finalized so the process of formal collective bargaining and labour relations with the employer can begin."

The next hearing is scheduled for April 12. 

Some workers leave

It's not clear how long the labour board process might take. While it drags on, the company doesn't have to bargain collectively with workers who want things fixed.

Some workers have voted with their feet by finding other jobs, despite the job market disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Workers said some replacements came to the plant fresh out of school, without experience on other jobs. They said they fear these new hires don't know their rights.

WATCH | Employees say Ontario baby formula plant is unsafe

Employees say Ontario baby formula plant is unsafe

2 years ago
Duration 5:17
Current and former employees of the Canada Royal Milk baby formula production plant in Ontario, which was much-touted by all levels of government when it arrived, say the workplace isn't safe and they're worried someone could die.

When the plant was announced, it was celebrated as a vital foreign investment that would generate both tax revenue and jobs for the city.

The Canadian Dairy Commission won't disclose how much federal funding was approved for Canada Royal Milk, but the government of Ontario has committed $24 million to the project. The City of Kingston transferred 16 hectares of industrial lands to the company for its facility.

People who know what it's like inside the plant said that, since it opened, word has gotten around Kingston that it's not a good place to work. They said the company must now recruit workers from farther away.

"When I first got involved … the job fair was huge. It was massive. It was on the news," one worker said. "The second one? Slightly less."

At a more recent recruiting event, he said, "five people came, maybe."

With files from Kristen Everson