Business & Policy
A Tough Job
By André Dumont
Farmers can help make it easier
By André Dumont
Danielle Simard runs a chicken-catching business. Last November, when
she took the stage at the 2009 AQINAC poultry meeting in Drummondville,
Que., everybody knew this would be the event’s most emotionally charged
| Quebec-based catching company L’Équipoule started hiring guest |
workers from Guatemala to solve its recruitment problem.
Danielle Simard runs a chicken-catching business. Last November, when she took the stage at the 2009 AQINAC poultry meeting in Drummondville, Que., everybody knew this would be the event’s most emotionally charged moment.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve been working on improving the perception of chicken catchers. Today, I’m speaking out about this unique job, and I have a lot to say,” Simard said.
Simard bought a chicken loading company in 1994 and renamed it L’Équipoule. Her sons Jean-François and Bruno are now involved in management. The company is based in Marieville (southeast of Montreal). It hires about 70 catchers, who load up to 500,000 chickens per week.
Chicken catchers have a bad reputation, Simard said. They have earned part of this reputation, but she insists that a lot has changed in recent years. And if this job that no one wants to do is to become even more respectable, she said producers will have to do their share.
“Long gone are the days when I would recruit catchers in bars,” Simard said. “It used to be that when catcher teams arrived at a farm, we would wonder whether the guys were on their way to a party or coming back from a party.”
Loading chickens in a van in the middle of the night, in a poorly lit, dusty and cramped environment is a dire job. Some catchers have preferred doing it after taking illicit drugs, but nowadays, they are immediately fired if they do so, Simard said.
|Danielle Simard has been trying to improve the perception of chicken catchers. She’s made strides and wants to further improve the job for workers, but the industry needs to understand what it can do to help.|
“In the past, we had so much trouble finding catchers that we had to accept such unacceptable behaviour. I couldn’t tell the producer that I wouldn’t come, just because I had gotten rid of four catchers,” Simard said.
A major part of the solution came in 2007, when L’Équipoule started hiring guest workers from Guatemala. Teams of 12 now include eight Guatemalan catchers, along with four local workers.
“Our foreign workers have adapted very well,” Simard said. “Despite the language barrier, friendship ties were created within the teams. Our guys have fun teaching them ‘Quebec French’, with very special vocabulary.”
Using foreign workers has actually stabilized the local workforce at L’Équipoule. Workers from Quebec know that they can be replaced. The company has solved its recruitment problem (previously, only one in 60 new workers would stay) and Simard can concentrate on other tasks, such as scheduling, occupational security and service quality improvement.
L’Équipoule offers continuous training to its employees, using videos to show how to improve bird handling. Team leaders produce a weekly report and teams meetings are organized to discuss work techniques.
Simard puts a strong focus on employee recognition and sense of belonging to the company. Workers wear company shirts. Breakfast and lunch are provided. Spouses are invited to the annual Christmas party, where gifts are handed out.
“The poultry industry doesn’t provide these guys with a sense of belonging. At least, they feel they belong to our company,” Simard said. None of the producers attending her conference could doubt her words after she showed a picture of a team leader – now deceased – that had his shoulder tatooed with the L’Équipoule logo. All of his team members had done the same.
Even at L’Équipoule, chicken catching remains a tough, hazardous job. Work schedules are extremely irregular, with most of the loading occurring during the night. Heat inside the henhouse, the cold outside, excessive dust, low ceilings, fans with no protection grid, poor lighting near loading zones and broken cages are all cause for injuries.
Every catcher has scars on his head from hooks and other loose pieces hanging from barn walls and ceilings, she said. Many have suffered heat strokes or frostbite. Several have slipped and fallen. All risk their lives loading from second and third floor doors with no balconies.
A lot of new henhouses are going up, but no one is taking into account the catcher’s needs, Simard said. “We would like some basic regulation for new constructions. It wouldn’t cost much more.”
When Simard asked her employees what three improvements should be made to henhouses, they said: balconies, standard doors and a place to take a break. “One of them dared saying he would like a washroom and that he’d be willing to provide the toilet paper!”
Having a sink to wash your hands would already be a significant improvement, Simard noted. “When you want to eat your sandwich, Purell is not enough!”
Simard also encourages better communication between farmers and team leaders. “Our teams are able to accept criticism,” she said. “If you want the job to be done better, the team leader will make the necessary changes.”
Catchers know they can make mistakes and cause bird mortality. According to Simard, all of them want to do a good job. “When they come back from a job and have caused a lot of mortality, they are not proud.”
A little pat on the back from the producer goes a long way in motivating catchers, Simard said. “When a producer tells them he was happy with their services, they tell us as soon as they get back to the office.”
Simard hopes that one day, chicken catching will become attractive enough for her not to have to use foreign workers. “We have made a lot of changes, but the industry also has to make changes,” she said.
Warm applause followed Simard’s presentation. A farmer even confided he felt a little embarrassed at the way catchers are treated. “I know things will not change tomorrow,” Simard said. “But if we don’t start talking about it now, things will never change.”