Covid-19 Chronicles 9: Are Filipinos being used as sacrificial cows?

Updated: April 25, 2020, April 25, 2020, 10:48 AM


Filipinos  fear Covid infections

“Am I going to die? How about my family and my children?”

Teodoro ‘Ted’ Alcuitas

The Filipino community in a southern Alberta town is living in fear as news broke out that the main employer, Cargill, is being closed due to an outbreak of Covid-19 in the plant.

Close to 80% of the employees are from the Philippines according to media reports.

Filipino workers are in a state of confusion as to what is happening to their work and income.

A source told Philippine CanadianNews.Com on condition of anonymity that he has has not been paid by Cargill after his self-imposed quarantine ended on April 17.

“Worried na po ako kasi darating na ang mga bayaran sa katapusan ng buwan,” he told PCN.Com in a telephone interview from his home in Okotoks, Alberta.

A 15-year veteran of the meat cutting facility, he said he was experiencing coughs and when he called Alberta Health, he was told to self-isolate for 14 days.  After the end of his isolation  he was directed to a testing facility for a swab test. The test was negative.

He told PCN.Com that people in the community seems to be ostracizing those who work for Cargill even if they test negative. Other Filipino homeowners also rent out parts of their houses because of a housing shortage in the area.

“So if one member in the household is infected it spreads quickly,” he says.

He says it is practically impossible to do social distancing in this kind of work  where workers are almost shoulder to shoulder.  Speed is of utmost priority – with 330 heads per hour that they have to finish.

“Ma-imagine mo na lang ho gaano ka bilis ang trabaho namin,” he says.

Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said many North American meat-packing facilities “are designed around efficiency and social proximity, not social distancing.”

“The lines are arranged in highly efficient ways and workers stand shoulder to shoulder, wielding knives. It’s loud, it’s slippery, it’s wet and there’s blood everywhere, especially on the slaughter side [of the operation],” he said, adding, “The plant hallways and lunch rooms and bathrooms are a certain size and they’re not rebuilding the plants to confront COVID.”

As of April 22,  Alberta health officials have confirmed 580 cases of COVID-19 connected with the meat plant.

One worker, a woman of Vietnamese origin has died and her husband is also sick with the virus according to reports. Another worker is in a “medically induced coma and is on a ventilator in a Calgary hospital,” UFCW President Thomas Hesse said. Our source confirms he is Filipino.

A Cargill notice obtained by Philippine Canadian News.Com.

Two Filipinas spoke to Global News on the situation of the community.

Jocelyn Ruiz said her family have all been isolating for over 2 weeks in their High River home and are in recovery. Her husband’s cousin who rents a room downstairs works at Cargill, and he and his wife got infected by the virus. He was the first to show symptoms.

“Am I going to die? How about my family and my children?” Ruiz said.

“I was so scared, I was so very fearful, that anxiety and depression came in and I have to fight it with positive thoughts. There are a lot of people who survive it and I want to be one of those,” she told  Global News.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Employee at Cargill plant died within days of feeling ill, union says another is critical

She said multiple people living in one household is common within the Filipino community because they are supporting each other as they get settled in a new country.

“We are helping them, some of them are renting a house say seven of them will rent together, not everyone can afford a house,” Ruiz said.

Beef processing at Cargill’s High River, Alberta facility. Photo Courtesy/Cargill Meats

Elma Ton is another Filipino who lives with someone who tested positive, another employee at Cargill.  Her husband works at Cargill.

“I have a renter. He received his swab test results and it came back positive so it’s been stressful. We are all emotional with what is happening right now,” Ton told Global News. “We feel we are helpless.”

Related story:

The union supporting the 2000 workers at the Cargill plant said more needs to be done to reassure families when they return to work. Thomas Hesse, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) President, is advocating for them to be heard.

“These plants are petri dishes of infection; where hundreds if not thousands are working in close proximity. It has its origin, we believe, in these crowded plants.

Global News reached out to Cargill officials and did not receive a response in time for publication. Our email request for comment to Cargill was not answered at time of posting.

Cargill is a major employer in High River, a bedroom community of roughly 13,000 people located a half-hour drive south of the Calgary city limits. About 2,000 people work there and the facility supplies about 40 per cent of the beef processed in Western Canada.

Relies on TFWP

Cargill has  long relied on Filipino workers to fill in their demand and utilized the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to lure workers to the province.

“There are three things you need with a beef plant. First is cattle, and we’re blessed in western Canada with a large cattle supply. Second is water, and we do okay with that. Third is the workforce, and that’s the most challenging and critical part,” said Scott Entz, general manager at the facility in an article in the company’s website.

With a turnover rate of 35 to 40 percent, the company has to find 700 to 800 new employees each year. In 2007, the comply embarked on a different model to recruit workers in other parts of the world.

Highest cases

The High River facility is one of several suppliers of ground beef for McDonald’s Canada.

There are now 580 cases linked to the outbreak at the Cargill facility near High River, 440 of whom are Cargill employees.

One worker, a woman of Vietnamese background in her sixties, has died. Her husband is also sick and is being treated in hospital. The facility said Monday it would temporarily shut down as soon as it finished processing the meat already in the plant.

Another Alberta meat plant experiencing an outbreak, JBS in Brooks, remains open but production has been reduced to one shift. There are now 96 cases linked to that plant.

A worker at JBS has died, as well as another person in the community, and Alberta Health Services is investigating to confirm if those deaths are due to the COVID-19 outbreak at the plant.

The union brought the first 38 cases of COVID-19 at the plant to the attention of media on April 13, as some employees at the facility accused the company of ignoring physical-distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation.

“It hits home on a personal level, but it also makes me very, very angry because from our perspective, this is a fatality that could have been avoided,” Gil McGowan, president of the AFL said.

McGowan said it has been difficult to get updates, as he said the government and OHS are only communicating with the company, not the workers or union.

Five employees at Seasons Retirement Communities in High River have now also tested positive for COVID-19; three of whom are married to meat-packing workers at Cargill.

There are now 3,401 cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, and 66 people have died. Just over 17 per cent of cases in the province are linked to the Cargill outbreak.

Production over safety

“Mamamatay ka, may kapalit naman sa iyo. Pera lang yun ho,” ( If you die,someone will replace you. It’s all about money) our source said why he thinks the company seems immune to the workers concerns.

The Alberta government chose to prioritize production over safety, according to  two researchers from the Parkland Institute.

Athabasca University professors Dr. Bob Barneston and Jason Foster say the COVID outbreaks could have been prevented and Occupational and Safety (OHS) officials were “unwilling to step in and correct the power imbalance between employers and workers when they had the chance. The lack of action left the workers only one recourse: walk out from work, which is what hundreds of JBS workers did.”


Sign at JBS Canada plant at Brooks, Alberta.



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