Nearly 90 per cent of all workers at AGI Westeel in Winnipeg have been quietly laid off just before the holiday season, the Free Press has learned, which management told staffers is because of a liquid steel spill incident more than a thousand kilometres away in Hamilton.
While a temporary seasonal reduction of up to 15 per cent staff (usually around 25 part-time and contract employees) is expected by agricultural manufacturers during winter lulls, Westeel’s layoffs affect at least 120 out of about 140 workers, ostensibly because of a singular event at one of many steel suppliers for the company.
Layoff letters dated Dec. 15, obtained and verified by the Free Press, show there is no return-to-work date for staffers at the multimillion-dollar agricultural company known on the Prairies for its distinctive steel grain storage bins. That means many permanent workers who have been employed at Westeel for decades don’t know when they will be recalled or if that will happen at all.
On top of that, the Manitoba union that represents the steelworkers says Westeel "egregiously" failed to inform them about the impending layoffs — alleging the company had "ample opportunity and a moral responsibility" to let the union know, especially since they were in the midst of bargaining a new collective agreement.
"The fact that this is happening before Christmas and during a global pandemic is incredibly disappointing," Paul Lussier, president of Local 9074 for the United Steelworkers Union, said Wednesday.
Lussier found out about the layoffs after the new collective agreement was ratified last week, following a very close vote by the workers.
He added he only learned of the extent of those layoffs after the Free Press reached out to him for comment.
"Shame on the company for knowing about this and not informing us during this whole, long process of bargaining," Lussier said. "There’s definitely a penalty for something like this, but they know it’s a pandemic so they can escape from it right now."
It remains unclear exactly why so many Westeel workers were laid off this year.
Tim Close, president of Ag Growth International (AGI) said the layoffs are "typical" during a "planned downtime period at Westeel for maintenance, de-bottlenecking and inventory" in December.
Asked how so many workers being laid off is "typical," Close declined to comment or confirm the number of people furloughed or terminated. He also did not comment on whether they would be recalled or why the union had not been informed either.
"Westeel had a very busy 2020 and has solid backlogs into 2021," Close wrote in a statement to the Free Press Wednesday. "We do have regular, planned maintenance in January. However the business will quickly ramp back up post this maintenance period."
At a meeting held by management with the full workforce on Dec. 9, however, the administrators informed workers the upcoming layoffs were because of an entirely different reason.
Workers who attended that meeting said they were given several details about how a Nov. 15 incident at ArcelorMittal Dofasco in Hamilton caused Westeel’s steel supplies to dry up.
Employees were told that, as one of Westeel’s major suppliers, the incident at Dofasco means there is "far too limited of steel supply" to allow all of them to continue working at the Winnipeg manufacturing plant.
The union confirmed this was also the reason they were given after layoff letters had already been issued. "You don’t wait for a disaster to have another supplier, you’re supposed to have a backup," said Lussier.
"It’s shameful because it’s like waiting for the cow to die before finding out you have no milk."
Dofasco declined to answer specific questions about those supply issues on Wednesday. According to a statement on its website, as of Dec. 18, "The company notified the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks’ "Spills Action Centre" immediately following the event due to the visible emissions that were generated as a result of the fire. The company conducted a thorough clean-up of the area and restoration has been completed."
Details leading up to the layoffs are also jarring.
In separate interviews, five different workers told the Free Press that ever since global conglomerate AGI acquired Westeel from Vicwest (for $221.5 million) in 2015, they have been "manhandled" and "treated like garbage."
Two other workers said they have been "forced to take vacations" before the layoffs come into effect, so that the company "does not have to pay them for stat holidays."
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"It’s pathetic and sad because I gave this company more than 30 years of my life," said one worker, who requested anonymity. "They forced me to take vacation, and are giving me vague answers when I ask if I’ll be called back. Something like this would’ve never happened with the old owners."
Lussier is suspicious about the timing of the layoffs and said he worries about whether workers will be eligible to receive federal emergency funding, as they are now laid off during COVID-19.
"But the fact is," he said, "these decisions aren’t being made locally anymore. They’re being made by this massive international company that now owns Westeel."
Temur Durrani Reporter
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.