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The Columbia Journal
P.O. Box 2633 MPO,
Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada V6B 3W8
Phone: 604-266-6552
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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Four   September 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca

    Workers Battling Avian Flu Deserve Respect from Federal Government

    Patty Ducharme

    While the battle to eradicate the avian flu virus being waged by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency winds to a successful close, the agency’s management refuses to recognize the employees who are on the front lines working under exceptionally harsh and stressful conditions to protect the well-being of Canadians and the safety of our food supply system.

    Here in BC, the Fraser Valley covers over 100 square kilometers and is the most important region for poultry farming in the province. Since the beginning of the year, more than 40 farms have been identified as being infected by the deadly influenza outbreak. All the birds within a three km radius around those farms had to be eliminated, following very strict procedures to prevent the spread of the disease. Millions of birds were destroyed.

    The members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada working at CFIA have been at the forefront of this prevention campaign since it began in February.

    When the outbreak first hit, the CFIA Fraser Valley regional office did not have enough staff to carry out such a monumental task, and more than 300 CFIA employees had to be brought in from other regions of the country—some from as far away as Newfoundland.

    Many of the CFIA employees signed up to work on the campaign out of a sense of duty and service to the public and the farming community.  Most of these workers had to leave their families behind for a minimum of three weeks, and many stayed for up to six weeks or longer. 

    Living out of suitcases, the workday for most of these people was long: up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.  All were required to receive strong anti-viral medication as well as flu shots.

    They worked under very difficult conditions. Poultry barns are hot and humid, and the workers had to wear full-body bio-secure suits and face masks.

    The psychological impact of being constantly exposed to dead animals and the stench of decomposing carcasses is indescribable—it has to be experienced first hand to be believed. Several workers reported that one of the hardest jobs they had to do was destroying pet birds in front of their owners.

    The elimination of large flocks of birds was conducted with military precision to make sure that no trace of the virus is left behind. Once a farm was identified as infected, crews and equipment were dispatched to the site. The logistics of the work are enormous: from sealing and preparing the barns to the fumigation of flocks, and the disposal of bird carcasses either by composting or incineration.

    The eradication campaign here in the Fraser Valley and the rapid influx of front-line workers from other parts of the country put added workload pressures on those who stayed behind to operate other CFIA regional offices.

    However, at the same time they’ve been in the forefront of the battle against the avian flu, some 4,000 unionized CFIA workers in the Fraser Valley and across the country were in the midst of trying to negotiate a new collective agreement with their employer. 

    And despite these workers’ hard work and dedication, CFIA management has been stalling contract talks to deprive workers of a fair settlement.

    Negotiations have been going on for more than a year, and management is effectively asking the workers to take a pay cut. The agency’s wage offer of one per cent a year for three years does not keep pace with inflation, and does not bridge the salary gap that currently exists between the majority of CFIA staff members and other workers in the federal public service whose jobs are similar.

    CFIA workers have already given their union a strong strike mandate, and the threat of job action is fast becoming a possibility.

    Management’s intransigent attitude in bargaining is a real slap in the face for employees whose valuable contributions help make Canada’s food safety and inspection system one of the best in the world.

    Surely it’s time that the federal government recognizes the hazardous and courageous efforts of CFIA workers to protect the health and safety of all Canadians, and the viability of our poultry industry. A lot more respect is due at the bargaining table.

    Patty Ducharme is the BC regional executive vice president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

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