Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In Friendly Manitoba, 'you fit right in'

Family prospers in Brandon

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When Jerry Jiang arrived in 2008 at Brandon's Maple Leaf Foods, he planned to work hard, live cheap and take a nest egg back to China when his work permit expired in 2010.

 

"When I'd buy anything, it would be the cheaper one," Jiang recalled.

"'In two years, I will leave Canada and throw (it) in the garbage,' " he'd tell himself.

But, instead of chucking everything on his way out, he put down roots in Brandon. He's married with a toddler, owns a newer house, has two vehicles in the driveway and wishes the lawn looked better.

Friendly Manitoba is home, sweet home -- for now.

"You fit right in," said Jiang, 28. "When you're walking on the street or running in the morning, people say 'hi.' "

In China, strangers being friendly would make most folks suspicious, he said.

"If someone said 'hi', they'd think 'why is that guy saying hi to me?' "

Jiang and his wife are content, but both work hard at the Maple Leaf processing plant on the edge of Brandon, where 80 per cent of the workforce is immigrants, mainly from China and Ecuador.

The Jiangs work back-to-back shifts at the plant: She finishes at 3:30 p.m. when his shift begins. With their staggered shifts and his mother-in-law visiting from China, they're able to care for 18-month-old Ethan without having to pay for daycare or a babysitter.

"It's hard," Jiang said, but they're used to it.

They planned to pay off their house in 10 years, but that financial goal was set back after having a son, visiting China and buying the big, new four-wheel-drive SUV he insists his wife drive in the winter.

"I don't want to worry about my wife stuck in the road in the snow."

The life he left behind in China as a single 23-year-old wasn't bad, said Jiang. He lived in a small city near the coast between Shanghai and Beijing.

"It was beautiful. The weather was good." He had a college diploma and a desk job at a tire factory. The problem was there was no room for advancement. When Maple Leaf was looking for temporary workers to get a second shift going at its Brandon processing plant, Jiang seized the chance to get ahead.

"I was making $200 a month Canadian. Here I can make $500 a week." The starting wage at Maple Leaf is $11.84 an hour.

In Manitoba, he learned, temporary foreign workers are eligible to apply for landed immigrant status through the provincial nominee program after six months. Many do, Jiang included.

There's no way he could have owned such a home in China, said Jiang, who met his Chinese wife on the line at Maple Leaf.

They married in 2010. In 2011, after their son was born, they returned to China to visit the grandparents.

Jiang said there are many couples who work abroad and leave their children with grandparents in China.

"I don't want my parents taking care of my baby," he said. "I think a child should stay with the parents."

Spending time with his toddler is his greatest joy, said Jiang.

"Everything to him is new: the bird, the stone, the grass."

Jiang's other joy is seeing the Chinese community grow and Brandon respond.

"You go to Superstore on a Saturday or Sunday and there are many Chinese people." The store now stocks more of the seafood and vegetables people from China like, he said.

"It's good. There are a lot of things you couldn't buy (before)." And everyone benefits from the variety, he said.

When the plant opened in 1999, it tried to staff it with local recruits, said United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 president Jeff Traeger.

"They were simply unable to retain employees at the time," he said. "They went through several thousand."

That's when Maple Leaf got approval to bring in foreign workers, said the president of the union that's been involved since the plant was built.

"A very high percentage are staying at Maple Leaf, and a high percentage are patriating their families," said Traeger. "It's a unique kind of thing."

Unlike Alberta, Saskatchewan or B.C., temporary foreign workers who come to Manitoba are offered a path to citizenship through the provincial nominee program, he said.

"It is a strong selling point."

New federal policies may hurt Manitoba's ability to recruit and retain workers, Traeger said. If Ottawa goes ahead with its plan to assume control of provincial nominee programs, Manitoba may lose its advantage of offering a path to citizenship.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Rising numbers

111The numbers spiked to 115 in 2006 and to 315 in 2007, thanks in part to Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon.

Since 2002, 80 per cent of temporary foreign workers at Maple Leaf in Brandon have obtained permanent resident status in Manitoba. Most are staying on the job. Since 2009, 80 per cent of foreign recruits are still at the plant.

For the province as a whole, Manitoba's provincial nominee program approved 637 temporary foreign workers to become permanent residents in 2011. International students who were working also applied, bringing the total to 989 nominees approved last year.

 

-- sources: Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Manitoba Labour and Immigration, Maple Leaf Foods.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j16

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