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Carlos Alarcon came to rural Alberta from Guatemala in 2010 as a temporary foreign worker (TFW). He was hired by a meat-packing company with the promise that he could become a permanent resident through the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP). “For me, this was a chance to become a citizen. I worked on a farm back home. I know hard work. I’ve killed animals before. But I had no idea it would be like this.”

Carlos arrived not speaking any English. After a very brief orientation in Spanish, he was given the job of ‘sticker’. “The cows, they come in and they get shot in the head with a bolt. They fall over stunned. Then they get hauled into the air by their hind legs and I cut their throats—about six per minute. It was very messy work. I was covered in blood all day, every day.”

After being bled, the cow then gets processed. Its skin is removed and the animal moves down the (dis)assembly line, being cut into smaller and smaller pieces and, eventually, boxed up for sale. “The newcomers always get the worst jobs. If you have citizenship, you can quit or say you will quit and get moved to a better job. But we who are working for our permanent residency (PR) status—we have to do what they tell us.”

Social Isolation

For four years, Carlos lived near the plant in a small house with eight other temporary foreign workers from Guatemala. “There were not many places to live. It was very crowded. Eight of us shared three bedrooms and one bathroom. But it was better than some of the places my friends lived. Being away from my family for four years was very hard.”

Hazardous Work

After several months as a sticker, Carlos was moved to a new position where he cut meat from a carcass, wielding a sharp knife in his right hand and a meat hook in his left.

“Cutting work is dangerous and hard. Yes, the knives are very sharp. But the real dangers? Well, the meat is heavy—400 kilos sometimes. And the line moves very fast. Workers can be knocked down by carcasses. And the room is cold. Your muscles don’t work the same in the cold. It is very easy to get injured trying to hold the carcass and do my cuts. I have sprained my arm and my back several times.”

“The worst part for me was using the metal meat hook. It is very uncomfortable. You hold it like a knife, but the metal hook sticks out between your fingers. You are always holding the hook and pulling with it. Day after day. Over time, your hands stop working right. There is constant pain. You can’t open your hands very well. You lose feeling and strength.”

Access to Health Care

Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) are common among meat-plant workers. Left untreated, nerve compression in the wrists and elbows often leads to permanent loss of sensation, strength, and muscle mass. While there was an onsite medical clinic, treatment for workers in the plant was minimal and focused on getting them back on the line as quickly as possible.

“They give you ice, pain creams, Tylenol, and send you back to work. They tell you to soak you hands in cold water and then hot water at home and do stretches. You want some time off to rest. But when you are not there, the employer does not replace you. So if there are supposed to be five guys and you are off sick, the other four guys must work harder. The line never slows down.”

Carlos’ access to outside medical aid was limited. Some workers sought treatment from family doctors in the town, “but in a small town, the company manipulates everything. No one gets time off to rest. They never rotate people between jobs during the day to give us a break.”

Permanent Residency

“Basically we are trapped,” explained Carlos. “Your employer is named on your work permit. So you can’t just quit like Canadians can and go work somewhere else.” Like many TFWs, Carlos was hoping to become a permanent resident through the AINP. Yet the prospect of citizenship actually made him more vulnerable to exploitation by his employer. “If you want the company to help you get your PR, you can’t let them see that you have trouble working. You cannot complain. You cannot be sick or injured. You just endure the pain and hope that you can go to work the next day.”

Discrimination and Racism

Carlos also reported significant levels of discrimination and racism. “The people in the town? Well, some were nice—very nice people. But some were not. They would say we were stealing their jobs. If we are stealing their jobs, why does their government let us come here? And why do Canadians only last a few weeks or months on the floor? Canadians do not want these jobs. They are terrible, dirty, hard jobs. No Canadians put up with work this awful.”

Carlos received his permanent residency status in 2015. Immediately, the employer started taking his complaints more seriously. “I said my hands were sore and I could not work here any more. So they moved me into packaging meat. It was still fast and cold. But the pieces are smaller.”

Price of Permanent Residency

Eventually, Carlos left the meat-packing plant. He found a job in Edmonton doing construction work and brought his family to Canada. “I work for a friend of a friend. It is hard work as I am still injured from the meat plant. My arms and back get sore. “My doctor says I need rest. She says to report my injury to the WCB (Workers’ Compensation Board). But WCB says that I have not reported the injury when I worked at the plant so they cannot accept the injury so many years later. So I take pain pills and do the best I can.”

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