Maple Leaf announces closure of St. Marys/Perth South plant

Maple Leaf Foods announced on Monday that its poultry processing plant in Perth South would be one of three across the province that will be closed by 2022 in favour of a new, $660-million facility in London. Galen Simmons/The Beacon Herald/Postmedia Network

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While touted as a win by Maple Leaf Foods and provincial officials, Tuesday’s announcement of the company’s massive new poultry plant in London wasn’t being celebrated in Perth County.

For St. Marys and Perth South, the announcement meant the impending closure of a poultry processing plant that currently employs more than 500 people.

Located off Perth Road 139 in the Municipality of Perth South, just minutes east of St. Marys, the Perth County facility is one of three that Maple Leaf Foods announced would close by 2022 – the other two being in Brampton and Toronto – to allow for consolidation of operations at the company’s new $660-million plant, set to open in 2021.

On top of the impact the closure will have on employees, St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee said the loss of more than 500 jobs represented a big hit to rural Perth County. Strathdee voiced frustration with the major government support, including a $28-million federal government investment, for an urban processing facility rather than one in rural Ontario.

“This is another kick for the rural areas that have supported the cities and supported the food industry over the years. It’s very tough for us to compete,” Strathdee said. ” We’re not against growth or change, but it’s tough because we’re not on a level playing field. We don’t have the money for transportation or the government support. Once again, it’s a kick to rural Canada; the rural Canada that built this country.”

According to a Maple Leaf spokesperson, the decision to consolidate operations in London was about the company’s “ability to be sustainable and competitive in the industry.”

“We needed to look at how best to incorporate state-of-the-art technology at a new plant that can really meet that demand, and that’s why the decision was taken to invest in the $660-million processing facility in London,” Maple Leaf spokesperson David Scott said from the St. Marys plant Tuesday afternoon Right now, Maple Leaf employs 525 people at the Perth South facility, about 485 of whom are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 175. Though the union is still in the early stages of discussion over how the plant’s closure will affect employees, union spokesperson Tim Deelstra said United Food will be working with Maple Leaf and local municipalities to ensure a smooth transition for all members who wish to apply for work at the new London plant.

“In their announcement, they said that included potentially jobs at the London facility, as well as other facilities that they will maintain,” he said. “Since they made the announcement to our members and their employees, they have reached out to us and we’ve reached out to them in order to start having those discussions about what does that look like.”

Deelstra said the union will work to ensure Maple Leaf keeps its promise of offering priority hiring to the employees affected by these closures, while negotiating fair severance packages for those who leave.

As many of those employed at the Perth South plant actually live in London, both Deelstra and Scott said the closure won’t be as impactful as it will be for employees at the Brampton and Toronto locations. But even so, the employees who do live in St. Marys and Perth South will have to make a decision whether their jobs with Maple Leaf are worth a longer commute or potential relocation.

“There’s certainly a lot of spin-off effects, and there’s also a lot of people that live here that we’re concerned for as well,” Strathdee said. ” There’s a lot of unanswered questions at the moment, so we’re just sort of waiting to hear.”

As part of the eventual closure, Scott promised Maple Leaf would consult with the councils of both St. Marys and Perth South as the company considers buyers for its 1960s-era manufacturing facility.

Speaking outside the Perth South plant on Tuesday, sisters Dhan and Dhan Gurung, both employees, said they were excited about the potential move to the new facility in London.

“This (building) is older than 40 years, and (we have) breakdowns every day when we work here,” said Dhan Gurung, who carpools with her sister from London to Perth South daily. “(Machinery) breaks down and we have to wait for it and the hours goes up.”

Another employee, who asked not to be named, said he planned to go back to school to become an electrician instead of applying for work at the new plant.

“It is what it is. (Maple Leaf) is a good company to work for. I mean, they’re expanding, so they got to do what they got to do. I can’t be mad about that,” he said.

In total, the new facility in London will employ about 1,450 people in full- and part-time positions, while the closure of the plants in Perth South, Brampton, and Toronto account for a loss of about 1,600 jobs. However, Scott said there is a real potential of future job creation once the London plant is up and running.