Meatpacking plant. Photo: Public Domain Meatpacking plant. Photo: Public Domain

The reopening of workplaces with no regard for the safety of workers shows the deadly determination of capitalism to protect profits, argues John Clarke

As the pandemic lockdown continues, the nerves that are the most frayed belong to those whose main concern is for the good health of capitalist profits. Among these, there are those who fear that premature measures of reopening will actually mean more economic damage but they are being challenged by others who feel that no risk is too great to try and get the cash registers jingling again. On this side of the debate, a veritable death cult of capitalism is emerging that openly declares the sacrifice of lives on a mass scale to be a fair price to pay for restoring economic activity.

Donald Trump makes clear that ‘there’ll be more death’ but that this is necessary in order for ‘our economy’ to be ‘raging.’ Plans to move toward reopening in the UK are producing anger and alarm, with trade unions challenging the failure to properly address the health and safety of workers. Here in Canada, the spread of the coronavirus has been at its deadliest in Quebec and yet the right wing government of that province is particularly determined to open things up without regard to the human consequences. There are few examples of the contest between capitalism and human life that are more clear cut and horrific than the case of the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alberta. There is no single location anywhere in Canada that has produced more cases of Covid-19 infection than this plant and it has only just been overtaken, on a North American scale, by the Tyson Waterloo meatpacking plant in Iowa.

Sources of Infection

Meatpacking factories, as the killing zones of agribusiness, have played such a role in unleashing the coronavirus precisely because they express so clearly a reckless and brutal pursuit of profit that precludes a rational and necessary effort to contain the spread of infection. Lisa Warden, writing in ‘Medium,’ concludes that,

“Industrial animal agribusiness exploits and afflicts its workers and their communities, subjects billions of farmed animals to lives of unyielding torment, harms the health of consumers and the planet, and creates the conditions for pandemics more lethal than Covid-19, all while enjoying billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.”

Cargill’s High River plant is a particularly dreadful expression of all that Warden describes in her profoundly disturbing article. Cargill is the United States’ largest privately held company with an appalling track record of global exploitation and ecological degradation. Its High River operation employs roughly 2,000 workers and, according to a CBC article printed on May 6, 949 of them have tested positive for coronavirus, with a total of 1,560 cases linked to the plant, including an outbreak at a nearby retirement home. It is worth noting that this major source of infection is only some forty miles from the city of Calgary, with a population of 1.5 million.

Between 60% and 80% of the workers in the plant are Filipino and they have faced a horrible racist backlash as the virus has spread. Conditions in the plant are appalling. As the right wing Premier of Alberta, Jason Kenney, condescendingly put it, “Those meatpacking plants, they’re filled with folks who have taken jobs that a lot of other Canadians would not take. Difficult, tough, manual labour without which we would not have food security.” The harsh reality that underlies Kenney’s words is one of brutal exploitation. Whether they work on the ‘kill floor’ or on the crowded fabrication line, the pace of work is dreadful and injuries, both from accidents and repetitive strain, are common.

In the above mentioned CBC article, one worker tells of an incident in which another cut off three of his fingers. “He was bleeding for 40 minutes because they don’t want us to call 911,” he said. “They wanted us to call the on-call nurse because she will evaluate the guy, whether he needs to go to hospital.” “Honestly speaking, they don’t care about their employees,” another worker relates. “They’re saying they can replace people at any time. They don’t care.”

When the plant, which accounts for 40% of the beef processed in Canada, opened in 1989, it was able to slaughter 1,200 cattle a day but that has now reached 4,500. The profits this brings its owners are considerable and the company did not take kindly to the notion that the operations of this golden goose should be suspended because of a coronavirus outbreak. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 401, the union representing the Cargill workers, has reported that the company violated the Occupational Health and Safety Act by preventing workers and their representatives from participating in the investigation into the outbreak.

An Alberta OHS officer has also found that Cargill failed to provide full information when they filed their report on the matter. An order to submit this information was issued for May 1 but the provincial government has generously extended this. Having had to shut the plant for only two weeks and, with no credible investigation having been conducted, Cargill has now been able to resume production. It is worth noting that the company failed to live up to undertakings to provide limited compensation to workers for the shutdown period and UFCW local 401 is dealing with hundreds of such situations. “There’s no help coming from Cargill. It’s up to you if you can survive,” said one such worker. “They’ll just replace us if we die. My family can’t replace me.”

Back to Work

On May 5, a funeral was held for Hiep Bui, a Vietnamese woman who spent more than 20 years working at the plant and who died from COVID-19. On the same day, Cargill reopened the plant. The next day, Armando Sallegue, who was visiting from the Philippines, died. His son, Arwyn, who worked at the plant, had been with diagnosed with Covid-19 the same day Armando was sent to hospital. UFCW local 401 has objected to the reopening and has tried unsuccessfully to obtain a stop work order from the provincial authorities. It held a rally outside the plant and conducted a survey of workers in four languages which showed 80% opposed the reopening.

A comment posted on the UFCW website shows a sad lack of a winning strategy to defeat this drive to place workers in harm’s way for the sake of capitalist profits. “Unfortunately, the situation has not been resolved. At this moment, we have been unable to convince any government or legal authority to have the courage to step in and ensure the plant remains closed until safety is assured. Our lawyers are looking at new strategies.” Unions weren’t built by hoping governments would do the right thing or by looking for better legal strategies. They were created by defying the employers and their state. There is an acute need to return to such an approach today, as the drive to reopen the economy intensifies, without regard for the safety of workers, their families and the communities they are part of.

As Trump tries to force workers in the US back to work and, as the situation in Alberta unfolds, it is clear that the meatpacking plants of North America are going to be key sites of struggle, as those who work in them refuse to be slaughtered for profits. The decision on when it is safe to reopen the workplaces, the schools and other public institutions must be in the hands of working class people and not settled in corporate boardrooms. The as yet unfinished struggle in High River, Alberta points to that very conclusion.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.