Blame capitalism, not carpooling, for the Cargill COVID-19 outbreak

Implying that carpooling is responsible for the outbreak is a way for Cargill to move blame for the outbreak away from the company and onto the workers.

By now, you’ve probably heard that workers at the Cargill meat plant in High River recently tested positive for COVID-19.

While there were only 38 cases connected with the plant on 13 April, just a week later, that number had climbed to 515, including households. A telephone town hall over the weekend identified 360 cases that were directly connected to Cargill workers, and yesterday’s COVID-19 pandemic update had it at 401.

Cargill had claimed, as of Sunday, that they’re implementing several measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

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  • Checking temperature of staff when they arrive for work
  • Handing out face masks to all workers
  • Enhancing cleaning and sanitizing practices
  • Staggering shift breaks
  • Providing shift flexibility
  • Prohibiting visitors at the plant
  • Increasing distance between workers
  • Installing screening between individual workstations

In addition, Cargill—along with Alberta Health Services—have encouraged workers to limit carpooling, citing that household transmission and carpooling have been connected to the outbreak.

This is problematic.

Highlighting carpooling like this is a way for Cargill, in partnership with Alberta Health Services, to move blame for the outbreak away from the company and onto the workers.

Why, for example, are they increasing distancing between workers now? Does that mean they weren’t far enough apart before?

On 28 March, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, advised Albertans to stay two metres apart at all times. A little over a week later, she recommended that those who can’t keep two metres apart from others should wear face masks.

The fact that Cargill decided to increase distance between workers, install screening between workstations, and provide face masks shows that workers were too close together during shifts.

According to the CBC, one worker claimed that “everybody’s too close and standing.” Another said that “the number of workers in my line, we were in full force. Elbow to elbow.”

Or why is Cargill only now increasing sanitation efforts? It’s a meat processing plant. Surely they should’ve already had strict, comprehensive sanitation practices in place.

Three weeks have passed since the two-metre recommendation were established by the province, yet Cargill has only just started increasing workstation distancing and sanitation measures.

One worker started exhibiting symptoms on 7 April. It didn’t take long before others did as well. After all, it can take up to two weeks for symptoms to emerge, during which time, you can be contagious. And within 6 days, there were 38 cases confirmed by the workers’ union.

The day before, over 250 residents called for the plant to be closed for two weeks to help prevent the spread of the virus. The residents were either Cargill workers or their families, and they were afraid the virus would infect other workers. The union joined in with the closure call the next day.

Four days later, the number of cases directly connected to Cargill workers was at 200, with 158 others connected to the workers. Out of those 158 infected, 3 of them were married to Cargill workers and work for Seasons Retirement Communities, which operates a continuing care facility in town.

As noted above, the number of cases was at 401 yesterday, In 14 days, Cargill went from one possible case to over 400 confirmed cases—all workers.

Cargill’s workplace practices are partly to blame. Their more than 2,000 workers worked too closely together. They had no masks. Clearly, sanitation practices didn’t prevent the spread.

But that’s only part of it.

Workers who had tested positive for the virus felt pressure to not isolate for two weeks, that Cargill supervisors were trying to skirt Alberta Health restrictions and bring workers into work. Workers were told that—even if they had tested positive—they could come to work if they showed no symptoms.

The company also provided a $500 bonus during the outbreak to workers who completed weekly shifts over 8 consecutive weeks as of 23 March, which increased the pressure that isolating workers felt to come back to work.

Cargill was never committed to reducing the introduction—let alone the spread—of COVID-19. Their workstation practices showed that. Their sanitation practices showed that. Their lack of respect for Dr. Hinshaw’s distancing and isolation recommendations showed that.

They weren’t committed to preventing viral spread because they weren’t concerned about workers. They’re concerned about production.

Cargill’s High River plant processes over 4,500 cows every day. That’s 2.25 cows per employee. If 400 employees are self isolating, that number increases to 2.81 cows per employee. Assuming, of course, that all 2,000 employees work every day, which obviously isn’t the case.

Their meat isn’t just shipped local. It also goes into the States. There’s pressure to get that meat out the door and across the line. Pressure from CFIA’s limited inspection hours. Pressure from clients. Pressure from head office in Minnesota. Pressure from the C-suite executives who saw the company hit $2.82 billion in profit in 2019, but which was down 12% over 2018. They don’t want 2020 to drop, too. Especially with fewer restaurants buying meat.

This past Monday—nearly 2 weeks after the first worker started showing symptoms and a full week after High River residents demanded the plant shut down—Cargill announced they were temporarily ceasing operations.

UFCW 401, which represents the workers, is glad the plant is shut down. It’ll help prevent the spread from worsening, and it’ll allow the company to thoroughly clean the plant.

But worries about profit-driven exploitation of labour value have now been replaced with worries about worker pay. The company has been silent on whether they’ll be paying their workers during the shut down.

After all, if they’re paying employees while those employees aren’t producing revenue, it’s going to be tough to top $2.82 billion in profits this year.

And to be clear, this isn’t just a problem with Cargill, who also shut down their Pennsylvania plant. JBS has 67 confirmed cases at their meat packing plant in Brooks, and they’ve shut down plants in Pennsylvania and Colorado. National Beef Packing Co. cancelled operations at their Iowa plant. Smithfield Foods closed their South Dakota plant. United Poultry has 27 confirmed cases at their meat processing facility in Vancouver.

This is bigger than just carpooling.

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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.

2 replies on “Blame capitalism, not carpooling, for the Cargill COVID-19 outbreak”

Great piece! I think Jodi Melamed’s work on racial capitalism would be right up your alley.

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