In The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1845, Friedrich Engels said when capitalists force workers into a condition which knowingly leads to death, it should be called what it is: murder. Or as Engels termed it, social murder. This is true for both the terrors of the textile mills of the 19th century and the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta, which is now the site of the largest COVID-19 workplace outbreak in North America

The plant, which employs 2,000 workers, has 921 confirmed cases of infections—nearly twice as many as the city of Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, which has a population of roughly one million. One worker has so far died. Five are in intensive care. There are also 390 cases and one death at the JBS meat packing plant in Brooks, Alberta. These two plants make up 23 per cent of Alberta’s 5,573 cases. Together they provide 70 per cent of Canada’s beef. 

An outbreak of this magnitude did not have to happen. This was not an inevitable scenario, an unfortunate accident, or the fault of workers. It is an act of social murder. Those doing the killing are not anonymous entities, they have names and titles, like Dave MacLennan, chairman and CEO of Cargill. The Minneapolis-based company was founded in 1865 as a family business, and is now one of the largest agricultural companies in the world. The company is controlled by more than 100 family members. This includes 14 billionaires, making it one of the highest concentrations of wealth in a family business in the world. 

The Cargill plant at High River was shut down on April 20 only after the first death of a worker. The JBS plant continues to operate and runs the risk of becoming an even larger tragedy than Cargill

The High River plant was reopened on May 4 with the union saying they were not even contacted by Cargill or Alberta Occupational Health and Safety. Many workers fear for their lives. The coming days are uncertain and there is no clear end in sight. 

The virus is shedding light on the everyday injustices of how capitalism operates in the cold, damp, blood-soaked slaughterhouses of Alberta.  

Business as usual

The first case of coronavirus at the Cargill plant in High River, 45 minutes south of Calgary, was reported on April 6. Since then workers at the facility have accused the company of continuing “elbow-to-elbow” working conditions, providing no protective equipment, and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation even after testing positive for COVID-19.

On April 12, the plant had 38 cases. Thomas Hesse, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, which represents 30,000 workers across Alberta, sent a letter to Cargill calling for the plant to be shut down, every worker to be sent home with 14 paid days of self-isolation, and for proper safety protocols to be put in place. In turn, Hesse told, “Cargill wrote back to me and said, ‘You’re being unreasonable and inflammatory.’ They kind of stopped talking to us.”

UFCW 401 held a telephone town hall on April 2 to address concerns about COVID-19. The union answered questions and gave survey polls to the 4,000 members present. Of those polled, 82 per cent did not know their legal rights during the outbreak, 86 per cent said they were not getting enough pay for risk involved, 56 per cent did not feel their employers were doing all they could to protect them, and 99 per cent said UFCW must continue to fight for safety and financial supports from the provincial government. 

Alberta safety laws assume employers and workers equally desire safe workplaces. Yet anyone who has ever worked a job—along with piles of research—can tell you this is not true. In theory, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) is supposed to impose steep fines when the employer is not compliant. But bosses often ignore safety rules and only follow them when they feel it is profitable to do so, and OHS fails to do much in return. In fact, it is estimated one in five workers were injured in Alberta in 2015, with 70 per cent of injuries going unreported. 

Cargill downplayed risks and misled workers in the days leading up to the shutdown, while repeatedly writing off their concerns. But even if the workers and the union had all the facts, knowledge isn’t power. Power is power. As long as workers are not in control of their workplaces safety will never be put above profits. Even the right to refuse unsafe work, which is a reactive right, meaning it can only be used after workplaces become hazardous, comes with fear of retribution. A survey of Albertans in workplaces with more than seven hazards showed 47 per cent thought refusing work would negatively affect how they would be treated by their employer. 

A worker told CBC that on April 12 they tested positive for COVID-19. “Cargill called me [three days later] and asked if I could come back to work tomorrow. How can I go back to work, I asked, if my result is positive? They said, even if you are positive, if there’s no symptoms you can go back to work.” 

That very same day an official from the Alberta OHS performed an inspection at the High River plant over video chat due to fears of the virus. Inspectors videod areas of the plant while the kill floor, an area where staff work in close proximity, was not operational. The union was not made aware of the inspection. 

“If it is unsafe for an OHS inspector to visit the plant, how is it safe for thousands of workers to crowd into a plant?” asked Michael Hughes, spokesperson for UFCW 401. 

The virtual OHS inspector concluded the plant was safe to remain open. One week later a worker—a Vietnamese woman in her 60s who commuted from Calgary—was dead from the virus and the number of cases kept rising. The OHS inspector responsible is as much implicated in this killing as Cargill’s CEO. 

Workers, who are on the floor every single day, are the only ones who truly know what is safe and what is not. They alone, with the aid of all available information, should be making the decisions of when to stop and start work. 

The United Steelworkers Union (USW) last week said the outbreak at Cargill is strikingly similar to the mine explosion at the Westray coal mine in Pictou, NS on May 9, 1992, which killed 26.

“An inspector, despite recommended social distancing and safety warnings in the COVID-19 pandemic, declared the workplace safe not long before one worker died and hundreds more tested positive,” said USW Western Canada Director Steve Hunt. “At the Westray Mine in 1992, inspectors declared the mine safe, despite clear violations of safety protocols and a buildup of methane-producing coal dust,” he added.

The Westray explosion was instrumental in the passing of “corporate manslaughter” laws that make company directors criminally liable if they are found guilty of wilful negligence causing death. However, showing the class nature of capitalist law, there have been almost no charges under the “Westray law” because police and the state do not take the lives of workers seriously. The case of Cargill is a clear example of corporate manslaughter and company directors need to be locked up for the death and suffering they have caused.

History of negligence

The bodies of those who work in North America’s slaughterhouses are treated like cadavers dangling from hooks. Broken fingers, severe burns, skin disease, head trauma, amputated limbs, gouged out eyes, chronic back pain, and carpal tunnel plague the industry. More and more workers are crammed into tighter spaces while the line is sped up. The US averages two amputations a week.  

However, meat packing was once a much less hellish job. Workers were often unionized and the pay was good. Most were locals. But the situation in Alberta worsened considerably by the 1980s. The economic crash at the start of the decade led to the capitalists “restructuring,” which meant speeding up production and cutting pay and safety measures. Lakeside crushed the UFCW local in 1984. This led to an increase in the rate of lost time due to injuries as well as an increased profit margin. There was a consolidation of plants into fewer, larger, more mechanized facilities with an intensified assembly-line process. Repetitive strain injuries increased by 58 per cent.

Increasingly, the company has relied on immigrant workers to whom they pay much lower wages. African refugees became a focus of Lakeside recruitment from 1999 to 2005. These were refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Other major sources of immigrant labour included Pakistan and Afghanistan. When these workers organized and formed a union in 2005, the company turned to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program. 

In 2006 Lakeside brought 250 TFWs to Brooks from China, Ukraine, El Salvador, and the Philippines. By 2008 the number was 775 and by 2011 a third of the workforce were TFWs, with 60 per cent being immigrants and refugees. Starting pay was $14 an hour, almost half what it was in 1984 after adjusting for inflation. 

The TFW program led to a docile workforce. TFWs cannot work for anyone other than their sponsor. Their immigration status is tied to employment, and the threat of job loss is chained to that of deportation. This led to a decline in turnover and absenteeism. This is of course not because conditions and pay improved, but because the threat of deportation hung around workers’ necks like a noose. The only way to end this scandal is to give status to all immigrant workers. If they are good enough to work, be exploited, and face the threat of injury, they are good enough to stay.

Workers are not cannon fodder

The closure of a Tyson meat packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa only happened on April 22 when hundreds of workers refused to go into work after many contracted coronavirus in their workplace. On March 30, 830 walked off the job at a JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado after 245 workers tested positive and five died. 

But the only way to end the nightmare once and for all is for workers’ control of these plants. Workers must be able to make decisions on what is safe and what isn’t, and must have the power to enact changes as they see fit. Cargill’s management have proved that they cannot be trusted. Not only should they be kicked out, they should be locked up. Their assets should be seized and placed under control of the workers. 

With the plant reopening after a brief shutdown, and power over production left unchanged, the situation is not one of if, but when the next tragic death will occur.

Work in meat packing plants is a grueling, dangerous job even without threat of a virus. But the pandemic is pulling back the veil to show how capitalism operates in its everyday form. At Cargill and JBS, it’s bosses who would love nothing more than to treat workers like thoughtless, passive, cattle to be led through narrow corridors to the slaughterhouse floor.