Column: Working at chicken plant not for faint of heart

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A busy, productive poultry processing plant used to be located at 65 Wardrop Street. It was close to the Morden Elementary School. Many women worked there to earn extra income to help support their families. I had heard they hired young students. I was still picking beans, babysitting and car-hopping to earn money for my post-secondary education. So before finishing Grade 11, I went to apply. I was hired and because I was tall and looked strong, I was put to work in the ware house with Mrs. Buhler, the forelady there. Instead of earning a dollar a day or 25 cents an hour, I would now receive the princely sum of 55 cents an hour.
My daily jobs were many and varied. This made warehouse work more tolerable for me. Time didn’t drag by as it did for those on the production lines. I helped grade and package chickens. I scraped frost from the large bins the packaged chickens were frozen in before they were sent to market. I swept the premises and generally did anything Mrs. Buhler asked me to do. Then one day I was told to report to the line supervisor.
The lady who stood on the line in the same place all day long and sprayed the inside of the passing chickens with a water hose was sick and I was to take her place. What a disaster! The hose was difficult to manage because the water in it was under high pressure. In order to do my job properly, I had to hold the hose tightly and be ready to aim it inside every chicken’s bottom that came by with exasperating regularity. Just the slightest movement of my wrist sent the hose spraying against the outside of the chicken rather than inside it. The ladies on both sides of me got sprayed. Their scowling faces showed their disapproval and I was not popular at coffee break that day. I was a conscientious worker and did do my best but my best was not good enough. Fighting with that hose and watching the never-ending line of chickens come faster and faster was almost more than I could bear. I was so relieved when the day was finally over.
Thankfully, the lady who was away returned the next day. I could go back to my less stressful job of keeping the warehouse clean and helping Mrs. Buhler prepare for market whatever poultry we were working with that day. Then I was put on the line again. This time I was handed a sharp knife and told to cut the small clump of green bile off the liver without cutting into the bile. If anything, this was worse than the water hose. At least I couldn’t fatally harm anyone with water. I was informed about the sharpness of the knife and told that if I cut into the bile, the smell was bad and the liver, and possibly the chicken, would be ruined. Now while stressing about cutting myself or others as I wrestled with that potentially lethal bile, I had to stress about ruining livers and/or chickens. I don’t remember how many livers were damaged that day but let’s just say the small packets of organs that are placed in the necks of the chicken were often minus the liver.
The regular women workers there merely tolerated us summer students. They thought we were young and foolish. In fact, my least favourite aunt complained to my mom about my poor work habits. I think she was standing close by when I was assigned the water hose. One mother commented during coffee break she didn’t mind working there but was happy her daughter would never have to work in that place. I thought to myself that I didn’t mind working there but was happy my mother would never have to. As fate would have it, my mother did work there for a few years after Debbie was older. She became the vet’s assistant and thoroughly enjoyed the work and the comradeship she developed with the other women. I did meet the daughter, later, when we were both studying at the University of Manitoba. She was studying Philosophy and did not seem the type who would have ever lowered herself to working in a poultry plant.
The poultry plant opened in 1955 and was in operation until sometime after 1982. I was not able to find out why it closed but learned after a poultry processing plant closed in Steinbach in 1995, there were only two left in Winnipeg. I imagine, like other industries, it was sold to a large corporation who consolidated their operations and found it more economical to operate out of a larger center.
When I told my children I had worked in a poultry processing plant, they were aghast. “How could you stand the smell?” they shrieked. They simply could not understand that I already knew at a young age, I would have to pay my own way to university. I took any job I could get and held my head high as I worked diligently and respectfully!

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