Local 401 Secretary-Treasurer Richelle Stewart greeting 401 Cargill members with a free mask
“WORKERS DON’T COUNT FOR SHIT HERE." That’s the real story of what’s going on at Cargill says Calgary labour activist Lev Bronstein. “They’re bullied into going back when they don’t feel safe. Filipino workers are turned into scapegoats. The whole thing stinks.”
The turmoil at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta continues. It started when the plant became the location of the highest number of Covid-19 infections in Alberta. It deepened with pointed questions about how long it took public health officials to help the workers to protect themselves and to finally decide to close the plant entirely. It deepened even more with the decision to reopen the plant on May 4
The worst workplace infection in North America
The Cargill numbers are staggering:
- As of May 4 1,560 people in Alberta contracted the COVID-19 infection due to links with the Cargill plant; 949 of those people are workers in the plant
- The virus has killed one Cargill worker and the father of another
- One in five Albertans infected with COVID-19 have links to the plant
- The plant is the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak linked to a single facility in North America
- On May 3, there were more positive COVID-19 cases at the three biggest meat packers in Alberta than in the five provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador combined.
‘They don’t have to die so we have hamburgers’
Workers in the plant were the first to warn this could happen. Right from the first moment in early April when their work was deemed “essential” and the plant was not shut down.
“There’s this tension and this contradiction between being deemed essential and being considered expendable,” said Michael Hughes, a spokesman for UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Union Local 401.
“It’s a moral question. If folks are essential, give them everything they need.”
“No civilized country that has the rule of law puts people in this kind of jeopardy to put a hamburger on the table,” says Local 401 president Thomas Hesse.
Cargill workers warned that the company was ignoring physical-distancing protocols by continuing with “elbow-to-elbow” working conditions—and of trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation.
More than 250 Filipino workers and residents sent Cargill a letter on April 12 calling for the plant to be closed for two weeks. Cargill refused and 358 cases were confirmed five days later.
Cargill didn’t shut down for 18 more days (April 20); by then hundreds more Cargill workers were infected.
Most of the Cargill workers are immigrants. So many that they speak “100 hellos.” Many are here as temporary workers from the Philippines, as well as places like Ethiopia, India, Laos, China and Vietnam. Bui Thi Hiep was from Vietnam.
She wasn’t temporary. She became a Canadian. She worked at Cargill for 26 years. Everyone at work liked her. “Candy Momma” was the pet name they gave her because she kept her pockets full of candy to share with her friends at work.
The coronavirus killed Bui Thi Hiep on April 20, on the day Cargill finally bowed to pressure to close the plant.
Blaming the victims
The fact so many of those infected are Filipino has led to racist accusations that the virus is their fault. “There’s something a little disturbing happening, a bit of community backlash happening,” said Lisa Degenstein, who works for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society in High River. “People say, ‘Hey, don’t you work at Cargill?’” she said. “And isn’t it a lot easier to look at someone who isn’t white and start making assumptions.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney posted a video to Facebook on May 6, warning of discriminatory behaviour against “some Albertans coming from immigrant backgrounds,” a majority of whom work at meat packing facilities.
The union surveyed more than 600 workers in four languages the weekend before the plant reopening set for May 4: 85 per cent said they they were afraid to return to work and 80 per cent said they did not want the plant to reopen May 4.
The UFCW Local tried its best to prevent the reopening. It applied to Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) seeking a stop-work order; it also filed an unfair labour practice complaint against both the Cargill plant and the Government of Alberta. Neither effort worked.
“It’s ridiculous that hundreds of workers can be required to pour into the plant to kill 4,000 to 5,000 cattle a day, while if you climb on the monkey bars in your local park you’re going to get a ticket,” said Hesse.
The union stopped short of urging it’s members to refuse to return to work. However it did, time and again, remind them that every worker in Canada has a legal right to refuse unsafe work. “If you don’t really think it is safe to work, then don’t,” UFCW told its members.
‘Our hope is in each other’
Many workers did return to work on May 4. Their need to pay the rent and feed their families forced them to risk their health—and their lives—to do it.
Hesse, and others in the Local 401 leadership met them at the plant gates, along with supporters from the Alberta Federation of Labour and other unions. They passed out masks printed with the message "Safety First" and reminded workers of their right to refuse unsafe work.
“One thing is now crystal clear,” says the union, “Cargill is now on probation. Every minute, every hour, and every day, we believe there could be new ways to watch and police them.
“Our hope is in each other. Workers themselves can control their destiny by acting in solidarity. As your union, we will be there to support every choice you make.”
Cargill Ltd. is a Canadian subsidiary of the U.S.-based Cargill—the largest private company in the USA in terms of revenue. The Cargills, a family of reclusive billionaires, still own more than 90 per cent of the corporation.
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