The Cargill Saga: Are Filipino workers being led to the slaughterhouse?

“..It’s too late,” Fernando (not his real name) a meat cutter at Cargill who tested positive for COVID-19 told The Globe and Mail about the company’s slow response. (Photo:TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Calgary, Alberta

Why is Cargill, the “world’s worst company” thriving in Alberta?


By Teodoro ‘Ted’ Alcuitas

Editor, Philippine Canadian news.Com

Cargill’s plant at High River, Alberta. Will it reopen tomorrow?

As Cargill, the world’s worst company (according to environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth) prepares to reopen its meat-processing plant in High River, Alberta tomorrow (May 4th), we can’t help but wonder if our kababayans are literally being led to slaughter.

Despite  strenuous opposition from the union representing it’s more than 2,000 workers, ( 80 percent of whom are Filipinos) not to open until satisfactory safety measures are implemented, it looks like it is a fait accompli at this time.

As of Friday (May 1), 921 workers had tested positive for the virus, the largest single site in Canada. The second largest is at another meat-packing plant – JBS Canada’s beef facility in Brooks, Alta., where 390 workers have tested positive. One death each is reported in each facility.

To put the magnitude of the outbreak in context, consider that the two plants alone have more cases than the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador combined.

As of April 22, Alberta health officials have confirmed 580 cases of COVID-19 connected with the meat plant, but Cargill did not close until April 20.

In contrast, British Columbia closed two poultry farms a day after it was confirmed  cases of Covid-19   on April 20 and 24. The plants remain closed. No deaths were reported in these two plants.

It is no surprise that workers are fearing for their lives

“Pagmamatay kami,marami naman ang kapalit,”  one worker  who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation told PCN. com. “Pera lang ho Yan,” he added. (If we die, more will replace us. It’s just about money).

“Mixed feelings lahat. Di naming alam ang hitsura ano ang bago (dinagdag sa safety), ” he told in an email May 1. (We have mixed feelings as we don’t know what the new safety measures are)

“Am I going to die? How about my family and my children?” Jocelyn Ruiz asks in an interview with Global News.

“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.

An extensive investigation by the Globe and Mail published on May 1, confirmed the fears of Filipino workers.

Union files complaint

The United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union, Local 401, has filed an urgent motion to stop the reopening at the Alberta Labour Relations Board on May 1. The Board has been having an emergency hearing since and no results has been released up to this posting. 

Meanwhile, the fate of the plant is hanging in the balance. Asked by CBC News yesterday ( May 2) as to what options the union will take if the board decides against them, Tomas Heese, president of FWU did not rule out drastic measures like a work stoppage.

New barriers at Cargill plant ready for opening on May 4. (Photo provided to Globe and Mail)

“The workers have individual legal rights to refuse to go to work if they believe their safety is not assured,” he told CBC, adding that a significant number is not willing to go back to work.

The long road to Covid-19

A copy of the Labour Relations Board complaint filed by the Union obtained by shows a strife-ridden labour relations in the company. The Union alleges a number of violations of the Labour Code and accuses the company of ignoring union demands and retaliating against them.

Cargill in turn, accuses the union of fear-mongering saying that the union’s calls resulted in most workers not reporting to work.

But it was not always like this.

In  a post in its website in December 6, 2016  titled ‘Worlds united – At Cargill’s beef plant in High River, Alberta, workers from around the globe are strengthening the business while finding a home in Canada,’ Paul Wannet, Human Resources lead at the High River facility said the UFCW Canada has been instrumental to the program’s success.

“The UFCW is part of the program from day one, as they meet these workers at the airport when the first arrive in Canada,” said Wannet. “Together, we have a vested interest in the workers we hire, and we both work hard to find a pathway to permanent residence for those workers that are temporary – and to unite their families over a shorter period of time apart.”

The company has been recruiting workers from the Philippines since 2007 and brags about its success.

“When you look at the acronym of ‘TFWP,’ we tried to take the ‘T’ out and turn it from temporary to permanent. That’s what has made us successful,” said Paul Wannet.

What lead to its present conflict with the union is not clear.

Certainly, there is no love lost between the two.

From environmental leader to worst company in the world

Cargill used to be the  darling of the environmental world but now occupies the dubious distinction of the worst company in the world.

In a New York Times article on July 2019,   wrote that for years, “Cargill has been on relatively good terms with environmental advocates, praised for agreeing to a landmark moratorium on buying soybeans grown on deforested land in the Amazon rain forest.”

But that relationship has soured over the company’s refusal to agree to a similar moratorium in another environmentally sensitive region of Brazil and, more broadly, over its failure to meet its anti-deforestation targets, says Yaffe-Bellany.

In July, the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth released a report titled “Cargill: The Worst Company in the World.”

The scathing 7,000-word report details a litany of everything that Cargill has done to be called the worst company in the world – from pollution and meat contamination, child labour to deforestation.

Despite the bad press Cargill is getting  for its previous records until today, with how it handled the Coronavirus outbreak, it will probably survive. As  it has for more than 150 years now.

For one, it is doing business in Canada’s Conservative heartland.

It has the ear of the current Conservative government under Premier Jason Kenney who has consistently defended the food industry as he does with the oil industry. Kenney says the food industry is an essential service.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress said Cargill and the provincial government must both bear responsibility for the outbreak tied to the High River plant. Hassan Yussuff said it “boggles the mind” that JBS continues to operate its Brooks facility, despite the rising number of infected workers. “I understand that the food-supply system is really important for the country,” he said. “But no system is that important, where you put workers lives at risk to continue to operate.”

However it ends, Cargill bears a heavy responsibility not only to its workers but to the planet we all inhabit.

As Mighty Earth says in its report:

“Cargill today has greater influence than even many governments over the fate of our world. Companies like Cargill — and business partners and customers like Ahold Delhaize (Stop & Shop, Giant, Food Lion, and Hannafords), McDonald’s, and Sysco that sell their products to consumers — bear significant responsibility for the planet’s severe environmental crisis.”

Related story:

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






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