Alberta announces $17M for cattle backlog. How much will go to workers?

Ensuring that companies can still cut up animals is more important than acknowledging the more than 1,500 meat packing workers affected by COVID-19.

On 7 May 2020, Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta participated in the daily COVID-19 update. During his remarks, he announced the new fed cattle set-aside programme.

The programme will compensate farmers and ranchers for the added costs of having to keep cows on their properties longer than normal because of backlog caused by reduced operating capacity at slaughterhouses.

This article isn’t really about the programme or its merits. You can click on the link above to read the details of the programme.

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I want to focus on Kenney’s comments, some of which I’ve included below:

We know that farmers have been seriously affected by the global economic crisis and, more particularly, the livestock industry, both here in Alberta and across Canada, have been affected by the impaired operations of many meat packing and food processing plants across the country.

This has resulted in a significant back up, particularly of cattle but also other livestock, here and across the country, which is jeopardizing the industry, and critical action must be taken to ensure a future for our food producers in this country, who too often we take for granted.

One thing I think we’re all learning through this pandemic is to appreciate a lot of things that we take for granted in our daily lives, including food security, and we wouldn’t have full grocery stores, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the food security that we have were it not for the enormous work of our agri-food producers: our farmers and ranchers.

40% of Canada’s total beef herd and 70% of fed-cattle production is in Alberta, and that’s 1.6 million head per year. Canadian beef industry cash receipts represent nearly $10 billion a year—16% of the total agriculture industry across Canada—generating an estimated 230,000 jobs, so it is vitally important to both the Alberta and Canadian economies to protect this industry from the impact of the crisis.

That’s why I’m pleased today to announce that Alberta is launching our fed cattle set-aside programme as one of a number of measures to help farmers and ranchers. It will allow producers to hold onto cattle on a maintenance feed ratio for up to 9 weeks, ultimately allowing the supply of cattle more evenly to match demand and reduced processing capacity. Producers will be compensated for costs related to feeding market-ready cattle being held back.

Right now, 400,000 cattle are currently backed up in feed lots, creating a potential crisis. As I said, for our farmers and ranchers, the set-aside program is a per-head payment to the holder of the cattle until the inventory is cleared; an estimated time frame is 30 weeks.

Alberta will contribute up to $17 million through the AgriRecovery program, which is a joint venture between the federal government and the provinces. An automatic 60–40 funding split is enacted when a disaster hits in the agriculture sector and Minister Dreeshen will share that Alberta is offering to help administer this program for our Western neighbours in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In particular, the specific amount needs to be negotiated with the federal government, but we estimate that the total cost of this set-aside program will be in the range of $42 million.

We’re hoping to restore production capacity as soon as it’s safe to do so. The plants, working with Alberta Health Services, have implemented dozens of new screening and containment procedures and protocols, and a lot has been learned about the terribly unfortunate outbreaks here in Alberta, but also in both poultry and pork plants in other provinces across the country.

Federal support for the agriculture sector announced this week included money for personal protective equipment in processing plants that’s already being provided by the companies, but this will assist to ensure the safe operation of those plants.

I’m pleased to report that at the Cargill facility in High River, of the 944 individuals who had been detected with COVID-19 that 826 have now recovered, and of the 583 cases at JBS in Brooks that 466 of those Albertans have recovered, so we’re at about 85% recovery rate to date. At Harmony Beef in Red Deer, of the 38 cases, 15 workers have now recovered. Those cases were detected later than in the other two larger plants, but thankfully there have not been there’s not been a significant growth in cases even though there’s been very intensive and widespread testing.

Of course, Alberta Health Services, together with our Occupational Health and Safety, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Alberta Agriculture are all providing enormous assistance and oversight to ensure the safe operation of plants.

That takes us to the 6-minute mark.

There are a few points I want to raise. Kenney’s remarks focus on the farmers and the ranchers. To him, they are the only food producers, to use his phrase. He even said as much:

were it not for the enormous work of our agri-food producers: our farmers and ranchers

To him, the farmers and the ranchers are the ones who create the 230,000 jobs he cited. They’re the ones producing the 1.6 million head of cattle every year. They’re the ones generating $10 billion in cash receipts every year.

Like all so-called job creators, the farmers and the ranchers to him are the producers. No matter how much each farm or ranch produces, the person who gets the credit for the production is the owner of the operation.

But what about the actual producers? What about the people feeding the cows in the large-scale feedlots? What about the people cleaning out those same feedlots? What about the people on the slaughterhouse floor—elbow to elbow—cutting the animals into butcher-ready portions?

Is the farmer getting soaked in blood on the production line? Is the rancher skinning and gutting the pigs? Are they among the more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 from those plants?

No, of course not.

The real producers are the ones producing. The ones feeding the animals. The ones cleaning up from them. The ones harvesting the feed crops.

Surely you don’t think that Bob Lowe, for example, who was recently appointed to the Agriculture Industry Advisory Committee and supplies cows to both Cargill and JBS, performs all the labour needed on his more than 40 sections of land. Certainly you don’t think he takes care of the hundreds of head of cattle in his feedlot all on his own.

Yet where’s the relief for these workers?

How much of that $17 million are the workers going to see? Where’s the money for the 2,000 Cargill workers who could’t work after the plant shut down? Where’s the money for the more than 1,500 workers between the 3 plants who had to self isolate because of getting infected while on the job? Where’s the money for the families of the two people who died from workplace infections?

Kenney says “a lot has been learned about the terribly unfortunate outbreaks”, but he doesn’t say what exactly has been learned. Have you learned that capitalism has made this outbreak worse? Have you learned that the workplace practices at these slaughterhouses is what lead to the outbreaks? Have you learned that Cargill, JBS, and Harmony put their workers in danger and are culpable in the COVID-19 deaths that have occurred?

He talks about the 85% recovery rate, but what about the rate of 1 in 2 Cargill workers being infected or the rate of 1 in 4 JBS workers being infected? And to be clear, that recovery rate was only made possible by self-isolation, something supervisors were trying to discourage and something that prevents workers from getting a paycheque.

Where’s the heartbreak for the workers infected, disabled, and killed by the virus? Where’s the apology for not doing enough to prevent it all?

For Kenney, ensuring that companies can still cut up animals is more important than acknowledging the more than 1,500 meat packing workers affected by COVID-19 or the deaths directly connected to those infections.

He’s so out of touch with reality. So callous.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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