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Labour + Industry

Alberta’s Meat Plant Workers Share Their Fears and Anger

As Cargill prepares to reopen, voices from the frontlines of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.

Andrew Nikiforuk 2 May

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

They fear the virus. They are concerned about the futures. They worry for their communities.

And they say neither the government nor two foreign-owned companies, which account for 70 per cent of the nation’s beef slaughtering capacity, are doing enough to ensure their safety.

They say the companies didn’t provide adequate protective gear for the people who butcher Canada’s beef until it was too late.

The Tyee interviewed five Alberta employees of two meat plants, parts of different international conglomerates. The people interviewed are members of a largely immigrant work force that speaks dozens of languages and now finds itself at the centre of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.

Those who work at the JBS meat-processing plant in Brooks wondered why it has never shut down in order to do a thorough disinfection and increase its safety measures.

Those who work at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River said the company has lied about the protections provided, as well as compensation paid.

As one shared, “Why did this virus spread? It came from the fabrication floor where there is no airflow, and we are working elbow to elbow and there is no distancing. Where are the safety precautions? They said they did the safety precautions. No they didn’t.”

Now that worker and others fear returning to work when the Cargill plant reopens Monday. Among that plant’s employees, 921 out of 2,000 are now infected. At least seven workers are in hospital and five are in intensive care. One Cargill worker and a close contact have died.

The contagion has killed another worker at JBS. Several are in hospital.

The United Food and Commercial Workers says Cargill represents the largest facility outbreak in the embattled meat-packing business in North America. The union is taking legal action to stop Cargill from reopening Monday, its president Thomas Hesse expressing no confidence that proper safety procedures are in place.

Representatives of Cargill and JBS have said from the beginning of the outbreak that they were making adequate efforts to protect their employees. Cargill says it has installed new barriers and restricted carpooling among other new measures before reopening.

Industrialized hot zones for infection

Last month, an outbreak at the Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota sickened 783 workers. It spread into the community causing another 200 cases, creating the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the United States.

Due to their industrial nature and demands for efficiency and close proximity, the meat packing business has become a focal point for the pandemic, creating bottlenecks in the food supply.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump has invoked war-era measures to keep the big meat plants open while local governments have advocated for temporary shutdowns to control serious outbreaks.

Many rural communities are paying a heavy price for the industry’s bigness: In the U.S., rates of coronavirus infection are 75 per cent higher in rural counties housing large beef, pork and poultry-processing plants, a USA Today investigation found.

Southern Alberta has now joined them. It is now recording the highest infection rates in the province at more than 250 cases per 100,000 people. According to Alberta Health Services, it also has an infection rate for positive cases higher than Calgary at six per cent. More than 20 percent of all COVID-19 infections in Alberta can be traced back to two meat-packing plants.

Unlike many Canadian publicly traded meat companies such as Maple Leaf and Olymel that moved quickly to close their doors in order to establish new coronavirus-related safety protocols, Alberta’s two big beef packing plants took a different course.

Cargill, which butchers about 40 per cent of the nation’s beef in the community of High River south of Calgary, refused a union call for temporary closure on April 12 after detecting 38 cases.

It didn’t shut down until 18 days later when hundreds of cases appeared along with one death on April 20.

Cargill is owned by the Cargill family, the fourth wealthiest family in the U.S.

There have now been 1,385 cases in the community of High River where the virus spread from Cargill’s kill and fabrication floors to homes occupied by large immigrant families.

Other members of those households also worked in nursing homes, cleaning operations and fast food restaurants.

Now Cargill is proposing to reopen one shift, with the approval of Alberta Health Services, on May 4. Workers, many of whom come from the Philippines, say they are anxious and fearful.

“Where is the independent evaluation saying how Cargill got so many people sick in the first place, explaining how this will not happen again?” asked Michael Hughes, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers 401.

On Friday the union sought a stop work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety and filed an Unfair Labour Practice Complaint, naming both Cargill and the Government of Alberta as respondents.

Union president Hesse said in a press release that “Alberta Health Services inspection reports have not been shared with us, and Occupational Health and Safety inspections have omitted the serious concerns we have raised.”

Brazilian-owned JBS, which slaughters another one-third of the nation’s beef, still remains open with one shift, despite recording 390 cases among its employees and contractors. There are more than 800 active cases in Brooks in total.

The Tyee talked to three meat-packing workers employed by Cargill and two from JBS in the past week. Three spoke anonymously and two spoke on the record. Here are their stories from the frontlines of the pandemic.

Cynthia, Cargill

Let’s call her Cynthia. She is in her 40s and acquired COVID-19 from her husband who works on Cargill’s fabrication floor where whole cows are cut up into pieces. She has worked at the plant for 10 years.

She has been in isolation since April 9, and two days before we talked Alberta Health Services had lifted her quarantine. But she said that her symptoms had returned the previous night. She had trouble breathing and the chills. Her husband had developed a terrible headache.

Yet Cargill is calling her husband back to work on May 4.

“Sir,” she said on the phone, “they are only concerned about getting us back to work. We are emotionally and financially drained.” She said the company did not offer them anything. “Not even a loaf of bread.”

She said the media reported that Cargill would pay full wages for employees in 14-day quarantine. “They are saying that and that is not true.”

She said the company made the outbreak worse by bribing people with higher wages and bonus if they came in for eight weeks with no absenteeism. “So the people, even if they are sick and need money, they are going to keep on going there.”

She said people and the media are now blaming Filipinos for spreading the virus. Even though she was wearing a mask, her bank told not to enter because she works at the Cargill plant.

“We are the frontline workers. Definitely sir. We are making food for the table. We are here in Canada, and the first and foremost rule is no discrimination in Canada.”

Cynthia asked, “Why are 759 members infected by the virus? (The figure is now 921 cases.) Because they are not giving the proper safety and PPE for the employees. And they blame this on the Filipinos.”

“Sir,” she said, “why did this virus spread? It came from the fabrication floor where there is no airflow, and we are working elbow to elbow and there is no distancing. Where are the safety precautions? They said they did the safety precautions. No they didn’t.”

She said her husband went to his supervisor when he first became ill with COVID-19, and said, “‘I need to go home.’ Sir, do you know what he told him? Just drink ginger and lemon, and that’s it.”

“They are just putting concerns for the company before human beings.”

Cynthia said she is anxious and alone. Despite feeling sick again and her husband feeling sick, the company is calling them back to work on Monday, and Alberta Health Services told them over the phone they are “clear.”

Science has not yet settled precisely how long COVID-19 lasts, or whether everyone is immune to reinfection afterward.

“We were infected by the virus, sir,” said Cynthia. “But I am not required to take a second swab? How do you know if you are not still infected? I am concerned about others. I do not want others to be infected by me. It burdens my heart.”

Jamie Welsh-Rollo, Cargill

Jamie Welsh-Rollo is 23 and a single mother. She has worked at the plant for two years on the fabrication floor where they cut meat into sizes for grocery store sale.

She was quarantined on March 31 with COVID-19 symptoms but was never tested because the provincial guidelines didn’t then include meat-packing workers even though they were classified as essential workers.

She had chest pains, a sore throat, a runny nose and headaches. “I had all the symptoms but didn’t qualify for a test.”

She returned to work 14 days later just as Cargill was reduced to one shift. So many workers were afraid to come into work or in quarantine that the company could only run one shift in mid-April.

One case appeared at the beginning of April and then became 38 cases by the second week of the month, and then the union asked the company to temporarily close in order to make the workplace safe.

Welsh-Rollo said the company should have closed then and got the resources it needed to make things safer. It should have said, “OK, this is a risk. Let’s change it so people don’t get exposed.”

But the company didn’t do that, she said, and “many people came in sick because they were scared of losing their job.”

Cargill worsened the outbreak, she said, by offering hourly wage increases and bonuses to workers with perfect attendance as more and more workers tested positive and were forced into isolation.

The incentive worked perversely: “They were encouraging workers to come in when they were sick.”

She said the company “wasn’t very organized to say the least” at the beginning of the outbreak. Their original safety video and pamphlets on symptoms were only printed in English, yet scores of languages are spoken at the plant from Tagalog to Spanish.

After the union called for Cargill to temporarily close the plant, the company put up shower curtains to divide the halls. They installed plastic dividers in the cafeteria and tried to stagger the breaks, said Welsh-Rollo.

On April 14, she participated in a conference call with Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. She said union members told the OHS there were problems in the locker room with distancing.

They were told of crowding in the room where workers clocked in and out. They were told that the women’s washroom had a trough the size of a kitchen table for washing, and it wasn’t adequate. They were told there were not enough microwave ovens in the cafeteria at lunchtime, leading to crowding. They were told that more care was needed in staggering the entry and exit of workers to avoid crowding.

Issues with personal safety equipment abounded at the plant, said Welsh-Rollo. “The managers had face shields, but we did not.” At one point the workers on the fabrication line were given face masks. “They got wet in five minutes and were useless.”

She said the government didn’t do its job. At a virtual town hall on April 18, “they sat there and said the plant is safe and two days later it shut down. How can it be safe if you are shut down two days later?”

The company, added the shop steward, “didn’t use their resources properly and it is a shame. The day they said they were going to shut down was the day the first person died. That is ridiculous.”

Welsh-Rollo said she likes her job and many family relatives have worked at the plant.

“Previously, before the pandemic, we felt we had open communication with the company. But when this hit, we felt we were going into a jail. If you don’t do what you are told, you are in trouble.”

On April 19, her 70-year-old grandparents said they couldn’t look after her four-year-old boy anymore because of all the COVID-19 cases at Cargill. That made here more “scared and stressed out.” She wondered, “What am I supposed to do now?” Cargill said it would pay for her to look for alternative care, but not cover the costs of care.

She said eight members of the union are in hospital. “We have shop stewards who are sick.” To date 30 per cent of the workforce has been infected.

Frank, Cargill

Let’s call this 30-year-old Cargill worker Frank. He works on the fabrication floor alongside workers from Ethiopia, India, Laos and China.

He said they all knew the pandemic was coming and that “it was only a matter of when and not if it would hit the plant. There were three cases and then 10 more and then it started to spiral.”

To be fair, he said, Cargill did try to do some things to protect workers, “but they should have closed the plant a lot earlier.”

The thing that upset him most was the lack of personal protective equipment.

“We didn’t get any PPE until after April 15.” Workers given masks on cutting lines couldn’t wear them because they fogged up their safety goggles. He said management “could see what everyone else couldn’t see” because they wore face shields.

Essential workers need essential safety equipment. “We definitely need proper PPE and face shields and better masks that don’t slide off your nose, and they need to be more open with the employees,” said Frank.

He said Alberta Health Services didn’t arrive on the scene until there was a crisis. “They should have been in there a lot earlier.”

David, JBS

David works at the 40-year-old JBS plant in Brooks. To date more than 800 people in a community of 14,000 have been infected. Four people have died, including one JBS worker.

David, who is 40 and works as a meat cutter on the kill floor, tested positive on April 27 and is now in isolation. He said he has no symptoms.

He said the company tried to adapt at first. It set up some distancing measures and took temperatures and put up plastic dividers at some tables. “It is really not adequate. When you go into the floor, there is no social distancing. You work side by side. We don’t know who is carrying the virus. It is not safe.”

“Before the Holy Week (of April 5 to 11), we had no cases,” says David. “After April 12 there were three cases. They gave us plastic shields. They started giving us face masks.”

But the number of cases climbed every day, and now four people in Brooks have died. In that town, the number of JBS workers with COVID-19 has risen to 333.

“Every day it keeps rising and people are afraid to work and people have anxiety,” said David. He notes that half the workforce is afraid to go to work or is in quarantine and so JBS is only operating one shift at the plant.

He said so many foreign workers from Asia, Latin American and Africa work at the plant that they speak “100 hellos.” Many, like David, are from the Philippines.

David said the company and the government keep on saying that they are doing the right things. “If it is the right thing, then why do the cases go up and up?” he asked. “They need to change their strategy.”

He said the government set up a clinic for walk-in assessments to test all asymptomatic people in Brooks this week. More than a thousand people got tested.

He thinks the plant should close for two weeks and be thoroughly sanitized and have all procedures checked and then reopen with proper safety measures for the workers. “That’s what people want.”

David said people in Brooks have started an online petition to temporarily close the plant.

“Members of the community are concerned that community transmission will meet or exceed the Cargill foods plant in High River,” said the petition, “and it is clear we cannot rely solely on employers to protect workers and their communities.” More than 4,000 people have signed it.

David is worried that he and fellow Filipinos are becoming pariahs in the place where they have invested so much effort, and now face rising risks.

“They are blaming the Filipino community for spreading this virus. The Filipino community is like a big family. Do I want this virus to spread into my family? No. Why do they blame us?”

Roger Kinouani, JBS

Kinouani, originally from Congo, works on the loading docks at JBS. He is currently in isolation because one of his car pool colleagues tested positive for COVID-19. “I am waiting for my test results.”

He said JBS did provide workers with some shields and masks “but it is not working. We have to find better solutions to avoid spreading this virus.”

With more than 800 cases in the community he agrees with the union’s request to shut down the plant for two weeks. “Sanitize the plant and test all the employees and implement some safe solutions for physical distance. Where we are failing? We need to fix it.”

He knows many workers who are at home sick. Many are scared. He said the additional pay of four dollars an hour that JBS has offered is not worth it. “Your life is more valuable than four dollars an hour. That is my opinion.”

“We can blame the company, but what is the government doing?” asked Kinouani.

Multiple efforts by The Tyee to reach Cargill for comment were unsuccessful.

The Tyee also contacted JBS Canada for its response to pleas by workers it shut down its plant for a deep clean and reset on safety measures. A company spokesperson said in an email:

“We have taken extensive and extraordinary measures to minimize the risk of transmission at our Brooks facility. The emotional and physical health of our team is our top priority, and we continue to talk about the stress of COVID-19 with all of our team members every day, responding to their needs as best we can.”  [Tyee]

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