10/16/2012 11:28 EDT | Updated 12/16/2012 05:12 EST

Crisis Meeting Held For Laid-Off XL Foods Workers


Roughly 800 workers returned to the job Tuesday processing meat at the XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., so Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors can assess the plant's operations.

That represents about a third of the 2,000 workers temporarily laid off on Saturday, but hundreds more still don't know when they'll be called back, and it doesn't relieve the uncertainty many of the plant's foreign workers are feeling.

The reprieve for 800 laid-off employees is temporary. CBC reporter Tara Weber said once the 800 workers are done their shifts, the lights at the plant will be turned off and there is no word yet on when the plant will open again or be fully operational.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it could be this week, but it all depends on the assessment currently underway at the plant.

Brooks city council and County of Newell officials sat down with some of the foreign workers to figure out how to support the community in the wake of this crisis, including bringing together a team for emergency services in the city.

"So everything from emergency shelter all the way to food and everything in between, hopefully that agency will be able to gather that all up and it will be a place that workers can go and get the services they need as quickly as possible," said Barry Morishita, a Brooks city councillor.

Among those who were laid off at the plant at the centre of an international recall for possible E. coli contamination, it's the more than 600 temporary foreign workers who are the most vulnerable.

Chris O'Halloran, son and assistant to the union president representing workers at XL Foods in Brooks, says one of the biggest challenges is helping workers navigate the bureaucracy involved with the temporary foreign worker program.

“The ability to stay in this country is attached to that employment, so you have a lot of supervisors will exploit, because standing up and saying something in a lot of cases can be a ticket home,” he said.

Brooks city council is holding a news conference Wednesday to unveil a plan for the community.

Workers will be allowed to stay

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s press secretary told CBC News that all displaced temporary foreign workers in Brooks will be allowed to stay in Canada and either return to work at the meat processing plant or will be allowed to get a new job.

“We are concerned about all workers at XL Foods Inc. and about food safety. Our thoughts are with the workers and the community affected,” said Alexis Pavlich.

“Temporary foreign workers are only allowed to work in Canada if there are no Canadians willing or able to do a job.

“All displaced temporary foreign workers at XL Foods Inc. will be allowed to stay in Canada and will have an opportunity to either return to XL Foods Inc. or to seek new opportunities with a new employer if there are no Canadians willing or able to do the job.”

Foreign workers conference

Meanwhile, lawyers, immigration officials and recruitment specialists are meeting in Calgary to highlight problems with the temporary foreign workers program.

Michael Greene, an immigration lawyer in Calgary, has worked for years to help streamline the process.

Right now, Greene says it can take upward of three months for these workers to get the permission to even look for a new job.

“A possible solution is looking at a more streamlined process to give people who are stuck in a vulnerable situation to work for other employers,” he said.

Opposition MLAs weigh in

While Alberta Premier Alison Redford has been vocal of her support for the beef industry, her political opponents came to Brooks Tuesday to talk to politicians and talk about how the government should do more.

"It's switched into almost a humanitarian crisis," said the Wildrose's Danielle Smith, the leader of the Official Opposition in Alberta.

"We've got 2,000 people who out of work, many of them are low income, many of them living paycheque to paycheque, they've got families. They are going to be waiting now for employment insurance benefits to kick in."

Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he also wants to see the situation resolved.

"We need to get these good people back to work," he said. "We want to get that plant opened up, and we need answers as to why the government institution system failed Canadians, failed Albertans and failed this town."

Also on HuffPost

Photo gallery E. Coli: Prevention Is Better Than Cure See Gallery

America Votes
The latest polls, breaking news and analysis on the U.S. election from HuffPost’s Washington, D.C. bureau