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Canada, Where's the Strength of Your Mandatory Paid Unions During the Pandemic?

Questions and reflections on the endangerment and loss of life at Cargill facility in Alberta

by Mildred German

Canada, Where's the Strength of Your Mandatory Paid Unions During the Pandemic?
UFCW presence outside the Cargill's High River AB facility. Photo: UFCW 401 Twitter
UFCW presence outside the Cargill's High River AB facility. Photo: UFCW 401 Twitter

Unceded Territories (BC) – The report of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak to date leads to Cargill Canada. Despite reports on how deadly coronavirus is and how contagious it is, the COVID-19 pandemic does not stop Cargill Canada to reopen its Alberta meat packaging plant despite the much hesitation and health and safe concerns of the workers.

The saga of this slaughterhouse’s outbreak not only exposes a harrowing place of death for many animals being slaughtered, it also exposes how workers are being led to a slaughterhouse that may also make them dead. This also leads to exposing that despite mandatory-paying and mandatory-having unions, there are workers in Canada still being led to slaughterhouses.

Cargill vs the Unions

Despite the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) stating it still cannot endorse the reopening of the meat packaging plant, Cargill Canada re-opened its Alberta plant on Monday, May 4th, three days after the May 1st International Workers Day.

Although UFCW Local 401 states there has been progress between the unions and the company, what progress is to be celebrated when workers are still dying? Is this the kind of progress which gaslights knowing that the agribusiness giant still operates and leading workers and union members to the slaughterhouse? It raises the question: what are the modern-day unions really here for if workers still need to work in unsafe conditions and possibly die? It raises the question, what is modern-day unionism really here for?

To Question the Union is Not Anti-Unionism

The union “endorses” that the Alberta Cargill plant may not be safe. We already know that. But the real question is here why the union allows a week’s wait of hearing and meeting to happen on May 14 and 15 due to the postpostment of yesterday’s meeting? And why the union cannot shut it down after endorsing it may not be safe? If the union said it has lingering concerns regarding social distancing distance, why cannot the union be able to shut it down? Why wait? Where is the strength of the worker mandatory-paid unions in Canada? Do Filipino lives matter? (Many workers at the facility are Filipino.) Do migrants and undocumented workers matter too? Have unions abolished their history and remnants of white-only members policy?

So many questions indeed. Our migrant communities and “essential” workers are dying all over in this pandemic, and if that is not “essential” enough of a reason to protect their rights then what is? Why is the issue of migrant communities secondary if not lower priority or postponed amidst this COVID-19 pandemic? If not illegal?

The Deadly Coronavirus: Alberta Cargill’s 949 cases of COVID-19 is the largest outbreak in Canada

With Canada's long history of failing to enforce regulatory controls and safe protocols for all workers, “essential” migrant and undocumented workers, their families, and communities struggle for survival prior and during the pandemic.

Despite reports of how vicious and deadly coronavirus is and how deadly it is, dead here in Canada and all over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic does not stop the agribusiness giant’s meat processing plant in Alberta to reopen despite the much hesitation and worrisome of the
workers. To date this has resulted in 949 cases of COVID-19, the largest outbreak in Canada.
Thus, it also results in the death of Biu Thi Hiep. Biu was an employee at Cargill Canada’s meat packaging plant for 23 years. Yesterday, a father of a worker linked to the Alberta Cargill plant, passed away due to COVID-19. The father of Arwyn Sallegue, 71-year old Armando Sallegue, died on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Arwyn, himself, also tested positive for COVID-19.

Nearly 80% of workers at Alberta Cargill are Filipinos. A multinational agribusiness giant, it hires newcomers and temporary foreign workers, majorly from the Philippines

Cargill as a multinational agribusiness giant also has a wing company in the Philippines. In Canada, Alberta Cargill has relied on Filipino workers to fill in the labour needs in these 3D jobs, the dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs many Canadians do not want to do.

Newcomers and temporary foreign workers too are backbones of Canada’s agricultural sector amidst COVID-19 pandemic; however their safety is less important than the cows. Ironically, these workers remained to be milking cows for the company, unions, and the Canadian government too.

Since its inception, the federal Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) remains an anti-woman and anti-worker program by the Canadian government that systematically discriminate and isolate workers through family separation, cheap labour, minimal or lack of access to housing, resources and education, deskilling of accreditations, unsafe working conditions and more exploitation embedded in this modern-day slavery.

Despite having unions, government funded advocates, and politicians, the numerous deaths and ongoing exposure of “essential”, migrants and undocumented workers to unsafe workplaces amidst COVID-19 pandemic also raise the questions: How truly essential are they - the unions, government funded advocates, and long-term politicians to our community’s struggle? If the workers’ rights and safety are not fully protected, what’s the point of all these funded bureaucratic levels? Of milking the already unfairly waged migrant communities and the very limited funding allocated to them?

While there are those whose long-term public salaries and retirement packages stand on the
back of our migrant communities’ struggles, and while our workers receive pennies, crumbs,
body bags, and deadly viruses, how profitable is it to prolong the suffering and the
struggle - who is here for the perks, real solidarity, or for the genuine win?


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