Cargill is Canada ’s largest COVID-19 outbreak site and fears for workers still exist

  Cargill's workers Alfred (left) and Bernadette both recovered from COVID-19. (Photo by Bryce Meyer,

) Cargill workers Alfred (left) and Bernadette both recovered from COVID-19. (Photo by Bryce Meyer)

Around 3:30 pm On April 6th, Alfred Gillo drove his car into a meat processing plant in Cargill, a suburb of the High River in Alta The parking lot of Ltd. walked towards his workplace.

He watched his wife Bernadette Pasco work day shift, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Gillo went to night shift, 4 p.m. By 1 a.m., if he set the arrival time to perfect, he and Bernadette would wave to each other during the shift. That day, he did not see her.

The saw operator Gillo entered the production line with other workers, waiting for the security personnel to check the temperature. When he reached the front of the line, the guard put the thermometer on his forehead for reading, and made Gilo clear. In the men's locker room, Gillow pulled his personal protective equipment onto the clothes on the street: a floor gown made of metal mesh, two gloves (cotton thread, a mesh cloth) in the left hand, and three gloves ( Two cotton threads are clamped in the middle) On the right is a hairnet, a hard hat, goggles, earplugs, and finally his steel-toed boots. He added the disposable mask he bought.

For the next eight hours, Gillow stood most of the time at a table between two colleagues, cutting off part of the beef to feed the Canadians. In the evening, he felt colder and colder. This situation is common in meat processing plants, where the room temperature is set lower to preserve the meat. But that night, the situation was different.

When he came home at 1:30 in the morning, his body felt sore. He checked the temperature: 38.5 ° C. fever.


Cargill, Canada ’s largest meat processing factory, employs about 2,000 union workers, most of whom are immigrants, refugees or temporary migrant workers. In the four weeks from the beginning of April, Cargill became the birthplace of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, and infected 945 workers by May 5. Another 600 cases of COVID-19 were related to the epidemic. A Cargill worker Hiep Bui and a Cargill worker family member died. Due to union protests, the plant was closed for two weeks in late April and reopened on May 4.

Meat processing plants across the continent have become hot spots for new coronaviruses. Workers in the slaughterhouse owned by JBS are only 200 kilometers from the High River, and the rate of illness is much higher than the general population: 487 people were infected and one employee died of COVID-19. In British Columbia, four outbreaks of poultry factories have been identified and these factories have been closed in accordance with orders from local health authorities. In the United States, 20 meat packaging plants were temporarily closed due to the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that of the 115 meat or poultry processing facilities in 19 states, 4,913 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19, and 20 of them died of COVID-19-related causes. On April 28, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to force the meat processing plant to continue operations.

People working in these factories are regarded as essential workers. By maintaining Canada's food supply, just like doctors and emergency personnel, they are critical to the health and well-being of Canadians. And, just like Cargill, many (if not most) food supply workers in the country are immigrant and temporary foreign workers. About 50,000 to 60,000 temporary foreign workers arrive in Canada every year to work in agriculture, food or fish processing. When the country closed its borders in March to slow the spread of the virus, the Trudeau government issued an exemption for agricultural food workers. They are still allowed to enter Canada and are allowed to work after 14 days of quarantine.

 Union workers waving on the shuttle bus carrying the returning employees on May 4 (Jeff McIntosh / CP)

Union workers waving on the shuttle bus carrying the employees returning to the country on May 4 (Jeff McIntosh / CP )

At the request of the interview, a Cargill spokesperson instructed Maclean & # 39; s to issue a statement on April 29, in which the company described its employees as "essential workers" (eg "Healthcare providers and emergency personnel"), and outlines the measures taken to ensure their safety. But the outbreak of Cargill and other meat factories raises the question of whether the employees of the factory are properly protected. Have they properly addressed the risks they face based on factors such as language barriers, future uncertainties in Canada, and the social distance challenges faced by low-income people in low-income families living in multiple generations? Many Cargill workers, unions, doctors and immigration services say employers and other Canadians ignore these risks. Marichu Antonio, executive director of the Calgary Action Dignity Organization, said: "These are the questions we have to ask after this crisis." The organization is committed to helping communities severely affected by the Cargill and JBS outbreaks. "People in important industries-we treat them like basic industries, but do we respect them?"


Gilo, 39, was born and raised in the Philippines. He is the only child and his father is a painter. Apart from basic food and housing, this family lacks money. Gillo did not have the opportunity to go to college, but worked in a supermarket in his hometown of Bulacan. When he was 19 years old, his first son was born. That was when Gillo decided to work abroad. This is the best way to financially take care of his parents and son. He said: "It's really difficult to leave." "Filipinos, we take our family very seriously."

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. In 2005, he moved to Kuwait, where he met Bernadette from the Philippines. They married in 2010 and had a son. But Kuwait has never been like home. Gillo and his wife are devout Christians, and Kuwait is not a simple country to practice faith. They learned about an intermediary agency in Vancouver that can help them find a job in Canada at a cost of $ 5,000 per person. The couple prayed for what they should do together-they couldn't afford to move them to Canada. They decided that Bernadette, who had received a college degree, would be the first. She landed in Alberta in 2012 and began working as a temporary foreign worker at A & W, not far from High River. The following year, Gillow received an open work permit and was granted a spouse visa. After arriving in Canada, he immediately worked as a meat cutter in Cargill.

This is really exhausting. Working long hours in cold conditions, he stands side by side with other workers. If someone moves in the production line, he will hit the next body. Meat at different stages of processing frees the factory ’s first contacts from the spicy taste, while the machine makes wh and bangs in the background. Gillow said that when supervisors need to talk to people who work online, they lean down and put their mouths close to the workers' ears, like a kiss.


Cargill opened a factory in High. In 1989, River started with 1,400 employees. They worked in shifts and handled 1,200 cattle a day. Today, the same factory can process about 4,500 cattle in 24 hours.

Sylvain Charlebois, scientific director of the Dalhousie Agricultural Food Analysis Laboratory, said the plant ’s safety regulations were not designed to reduce the risk of infection during a pandemic. the University. The main safety considerations for meat processing plants are food safety and worker safety. Charlebois said: "Physical distance is not something they have to consider."

Compared with this 31-year-old factory, many newer meat processing facilities have a higher degree of automation. The flow of people has decreased. The same is true of dairy or beverage factories where production is highly automated and few people work on the floor. Charlebois has visited the factories of JBS and Cargill in the past, but he said that he was "not surprised" about the epidemic, given the way he works and how the factory is designed.

On March 5, the Chief Medical Officer of the Ministry of Health of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta, announced the province ’s first COVID-19 presumptive case, which was a woman on a princess cruise ship. The number of cases in Alberta began to rise, slowly at first, and then rapidly. On March 17, the Alberta government announced emergency public health measures.

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Three days later, the union representing the workers of Cargill wrote a letter to the company calling for a greater distance between the workers in the factory . In response, the company outlined the steps they would take, including: isolating return passengers from international travel for 14 days; adjusting breaks to reduce the number of people entering the cafeteria at once; changing the table configuration in the cafeteria; adding outdoor heating options, In order to provide more space for people to rest; increase the cleaning of public areas; a salary increase of $ 2 per hour, depending on the continuous attendance of staff. Employees who complete all scheduled shifts for eight weeks will receive a $ 500 bonus unless their absence is related to a scheduled holiday or COVID-19. Due to COVID-19, employees will also receive a fixed salary of up to 14 calendar days to take vacations.

Gillow said he asked the supervisor to put on a mask, but was told that they were not necessary because social alienation measures had been taken. He and Bernadette bought disposable masks. They will wear it for a few days, then wash it and dry it in the sun.

When Maclean & # 39; s asked Cargill to comment, company spokesperson Daniel Sullivan replied: “The use of masks has been consistent with Alberta Health Services (AHS) guidelines and requirements. ”He added:“ The company has evolved from encouraging the use of personal masks to providing and enforcing their use based on health guidelines. ”

Store Administrator Jamie Wilsh-Ro Jamie Welsh-Rollo said that within the factory, it is impossible to keep a distance from society and is part of the factory health and safety committee. In the cafeteria, people will crowd 12 working microwave ovens and put in multiple meals at the same time. They sat at a long picnic table, with a narrow gap between them. Before and after work, hundreds of workers enter the locker room to put on or take off equipment. Maclean ’s watched a short film taken with a mobile phone while someone was walking in a part of the men ’s locker room. The twelve columns of green and beige lockers are arranged in two rows, facing the same row of lockers, and in a small pod with a bench in the middle. The man puts his gloves on the bench when opening the locker or wearing a jacket. At least 40 people appeared briefly in the video. They were very close, they could touch their elbows, and they walked alone on the way to the locker.

 As the union manager, Welsh Rollo has received dozens of complaints about wage arrears. (Photo by Bryce Meyer,

) As a union steward, Welsh-Rollo has received dozens of complaints about workers' wage arrears. (Photo by Bryce Meyer)

Welsh-Rollo is a single parent of a four-year-old son who suffers from autoimmune diseases. He is very worried about being infected with COVID-19. When the province entered a blockade in March, her son's daycare services were closed, and she asked grandparents who had retired and lived nearby to help. At the end of the shift, she will go home to take a bath, then change clothes, and then pick him up. At the end of March, she became ill with a runny nose, chest pain, cough and severe headache. She was quarantined for two weeks, but has never been tested by COVID-19. At the time, the Alberta Protocol prioritized testing travelers, patients hospitalized for respiratory diseases, residents of continuous nursing homes, and medical personnel. Food workers are not listed.

On April 6, the test was expanded again to include anyone on the front line who had symptoms of COVID-19, especially group workers or shelter workers, first-aid personnel, COVID-19 law enforcement personnel, correctional personnel and 65 years of age And anyone with symptoms above. Once again, no food practitioners are listed.


When Gillow woke up on the morning of April 7, he had a headache and fever. He called Cargill ’s nurse office many times, but no one answered. He heard from colleagues that the company set up a nursing tent outside the factory to wipe employees, so he drove to the factory. The manager standing outside asked him if he had symptoms, and Gillow said he did. Gillow told the nurse in the tent that he had a fever overnight. She gave him a note saying that he needed to be quarantined for 10 days and started immediately. She told him to stay indoors and not to stay with his family.

The next morning, Bernadette coughed. She called the health service at the company. They did not answer, so she left a message explaining her situation. She stayed at home on Alfred's urging. Later that day, the health service called back to tell her to be quarantined.

Alfred and Bernadette shut themselves in the bedroom and closed the door of their family. On the other hand, Bernadette's 63-year-old mother Bella took over cooking and housework. The couple worried about how she and their two boys, aged 5 and 10, responded. Easter passed when they were isolated. They prayed and cheered for the pastor's words. They said that God was not in the building, but in the man of faith. The members of the church put food down on their front steps.

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In the second week of isolation, Bella knocked on their door. The door told them she was uncomfortable. Alfred and Bernadette prayed again for what to do and decided to exchange places with other families. Bella moved into her bedroom, the boy moved into their bedroom, and Alfred and Bernadette took over the family. People in the church continued to bring food, and the couple left part of the food outside the door of the child and Bella. Alfred and Bernadette boil water several times a day in a large pot with three tablespoons of salt and sit under a blanket, sucking steam.

Their little son cried out of the room. Alfred stood in the corridor, trying to comfort him. He said that was one of the worst parts. "This really breaks my heart."

On April 13, a colleague who worked closely with Bernadette called and said that her COVID-19 test was positive. She encouraged the couple to take the test and told them that the Okotoks emergency center 25 km away was wiping people. Alfred and Bernadette drove there to test. The next day, they learned that they were positive.


Throughout April, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among Cargill employees increased day by day: on April 6th, 38th, 13th, 360 was released on April 20th, and another 124 In the community. On April 19, Hiep Bui is a 67-year-old Vietnamese woman who has been working at Cargill since 1996. She died of a COVID-19 in a Calgary hospital. She fell ill when she went to work three days ago. Dignified Antonio (Antonio) helped organize her cremation; Buyi's sorrowful husband was very sick.

Like many employees of Cargill, Buyi lives in Calgary, 37 kilometers north of the factory. Housing in this city is richer and cheaper. Like many Cargill workers, especially during the night shift, Mr. Pei carpooled to work.

Annalee Coakley, medical director of the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in Calgary, several patients were affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in Cargill. Some people continue to work even after getting sick. Coakley attributed it to multiple factors: fever back and forth, lack of translation, mixed information about screening practices, and widespread fear that workers who remain at home with symptoms will be unemployed or unpaid. "They live a life of word of mouth," Coakley said. "If you want them to follow these new rules about staying at home, you also need to assure them that they will not lose their jobs because of this."

Coakley was involved in the province's contact tracking during the Bui period plan. Died to help AHS solve the unique needs of new immigrants and immigrants erupted by Cargill. Alberta ’s public health information on COVID-19 has not been translated into the mother tongue of many workers and their families, and it lacks culturally appropriate resources to help them isolate and seek financial assistance.

In the third week of April, local immigration services such as the Calgary Catholic Immigration Association and Action Dignity Organization convened a large number of volunteers to work with AHS to help sick and isolated food service workers. Volunteers from communities in the Philippines, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Mexico coordinate with the Food Bank to provide food worth two weeks to their homes. Filipino family meal. Oranges in a family with children. Fish that may become soup. The Alberta International Medical Graduates Association (Alberta International Medical Graduates Association) is an organization that represents more than 1,000 foreign-trained doctors in the province and translates health information about COVID-19 into 19 different languages.

The epidemic also exposed the discrimination faced by many migrant workers. Coakley said a patient's landlord asked her to move out because she works at Cargill. Action Dignity's Antonio said that even after being approved by AHS, some Filipino workers are still denied access to banks and grocery stores. Antonio said that racism is the unknown story of this outbreak. "Infection with the virus is not their choice. Things like carpooling or poor living conditions are not their choice. This is what they must do to survive."

Calgary family doctor Amy Tan takes care of a large number of immigrants And refugee patients. Although none of them work at Cargill, many people work in other food processing plants or fast food restaurants. Some people live in one-bedroom apartments with 10 family members. They regularly open their homes to acquaintances and family members who need shelter. Tan pointed out that many of them are people of color, but people of color are not. They are basic workers who live with other basic workers;

Tan said that the government and large companies like Cargill put food workers in a high-risk situation and let them manage the risks at work so that food workers Closed and at home. "How do we ask them to navigate a system that already feels insecure, feels like it can't speak, and has limited financial capabilities? How do we put all of this on them?" Tan hopes that Canada will collect race and socioeconomic data during COVID-19. Without it, she said, the true number of susceptible or marginalized people in Canada will never be known.

On the Friday before the plant was scheduled to reopen, Mussie Yemane, a volunteer from the Calgary Community Association of Canada in Eritrea, received calls from three workers and they told him they were required to be separated Or return to work before the self-quarantine period is completed. He said: "I was told they must go in before the AHS said it was OK." Kirkley said she had a conversation with a Cargill nurse to clarify the requirements for self-isolation and isolation. Welsh-Rollo said that in the past few weeks, many workers did not receive full payment because they were quarantined, sick or waiting for the factory to reopen. As a store administrator, she has received 60 complaints about salary.

Cargill spokesperson Sullivan told Maclean (19459010), “Encourage employees to contact their human resources representatives regarding any concerns about working conditions, to leave or return to work. We are already very It is clear that if any employee is sick or still in isolation, no employee can return to work, and all employees must be inspected before entering the factory. According to health officials, most workers stay healthy and 810 people have Full recovery. "

 Barriers were established at the Cargill factory to help protect employees returning to the factory. (Provided by Cargill)

Barriers were set up at the Cargill plant to protect employees returning to the factory (Provided by Cargill)

The Cargill statement issued on April 29 described other safety measures implemented during the two-week shutdown of the plant Facilities, including: restricting access to the factory to cars with no more than two people; providing transportation to the factory through a bus with protective barriers between seats; providing occupational health and safety with virtual and personal visits to the factory ( OHS); increase barriers in the bathroom and reallocate lockers to allow the necessary intervals; and conduct extensive hygiene. The company also stated that "continue to focus on education and awareness of social alienation within and outside of work", which includes "do not share food during meals." Cargill told Maclean & # 39; s that the company will provide translations for temporary foreign workers, and the company has regularly contacted employees about salary.

The reopening of the plant is supported by AHS and OHS, and the organization is investigating.

"The company is grateful for the gratitude of the workers." It will focus on the potentially exposed environment of Cargill workers related to COVID-19, as well as any potential non-compliance that may affect the health and safety of workers in the plant. Sullivan told Maclean & # 39; s that we will dedicate dedication and resilience as we spend this worrying pandemic in our factories and communities. "We are affectionately aware that it is not easy to be an important worker."


Gillo decided to speak about the experience of Maclean & # 39; s because he thought People should understand. He said he was not afraid. He quoted a favorite sentence in the Bible, Isaiah 41:10: Do n’t be afraid, because I am with you. Don't be alarmed, because I am your God. He added that in Canada, people have the freedom to share their stories.

He understood why many of his colleagues shouted loudly, especially if they were not permanent residents. The family has been under pressure for the first four years in Canada. They never determined their future. Alfred needs to pass the English test to apply for permanent residency. He failed for the first time. On Bernadette's birthday in 2016, Gillo passed the exam. The following year, the family became a permanent resident. He said, "Thank God, we are so happy."

Between Alfred and Bernadette, someone was at Cargill 18 hours a day, which is why they were on shift. Look for each other in the system. They enjoy sacred time together on holidays and weekends. "On normal Saturdays and Sundays, we go to church, go shopping, and stay in touch with the children," Alfred said. This family likes camping, barbecue, walking and cycling. They own two used cars, one for each. "In Kuwait, we can't go out. We don't have a car over there. Even having a permit is far beyond our imagination." They send $ 250 a month to the Gilo family in the Philippines. This is why they work in the slaughterhouse. "Even if it is difficult to work at Cargill, this is the way we chose."

The whole family has recovered from the symptoms. They have been approved by AHS to resume work. Gillow worried that he would take the virus home again. He heard that someone had symptoms again after removing the virus. Not sure if he is immune. He told his boss that he wanted everyone to have a clear face shield to cover his forehead to chin.

He and Bernadette decided that they could not afford the burden at home. "We will go back, we will pray. Of course, God is with us." Gillow said. On May 6, he and his wife returned to work.

Editor ’s note:

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Editor-in-Chief of Alison Uncles
Maclean & # 39; s

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