Ahmed remembers when his stepfather, Ashraf, almost lost his finger while working at the JBS meat plant in the small Alberta city of Brooks.
Two days later, he was back on the job.
Ahmed, whose name has been changed to protect his stepfather’s identity, recalls visiting his dad in the hospital and seeing him in a state of distress. But after his first shift back at work, he came home relieved he was still employed. Ahmed was shocked.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious? Like, you’re worried about losing your job when you almost lost your finger?’ ”
Ahmed’s story speaks to what some immigrants say is the work ethic required to gain a foothold in a new country. For decades, meat plants have been a landing place for people new to Canada. The job has always meant long hours and hard labour, but, crucially, without the need for language skills or specialized training.
Between half and 75 per cent of the workers at the plant are immigrants or temporary foreign workers, according to numerous workers and union representatives who spoke to the Star.
But now, a job at a meat plant also means the potential of being exposed to COVID-19.
The Star spoke with three employees at the meat plant in Brooks on the condition of anonymity. They asked that their real names not be used as they feared they could lose their jobs if they spoke to the media.
Meat-processing plants have been thrust into the spotlight in connection to significant outbreaks of coronavirus in North America. Employees say they spend long hours cutting and packaging meat in conditions that one worker described as “side by side,” making physical distancing challenging.
Taken together, the JBS meat plant in Brooks and the Cargill meat plant in High River are linked to more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19, accounting for nearly 30 per cent of all Alberta cases.
The Cargill plant was closed on April 20 after Bui Thi Hiep, an employee of Vietnamese descent who worked at the plant for more than two decades, died of COVID-19, according to a Facebook post detailing memorial arrangements. The plant closed two days after government officials told workers the site was safe during a tele-townhall. The plant reopened Monday, despite United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, the union that represents the workers, attempting to secure a stop-work order to prevent the reopening.
In a statement on the opening of the High River plant Monday, Cargill said employees returning to work must be healthy and not have had any contact with anyone with COVID-19 for 14 days.
“We are poignantly aware that being an essential worker is not easy. The health and safety of our employees continues to be our top priority,” the statement said.
The outbreak at Cargill in High River, a town of about 13,000 just south of Calgary, is the biggest outbreak linked to a single workplace in Canada, with more than 1,100 cases linked to the plant. Meanwhile the city of Brooks, two hours directly east of High River, has seen almost 1,000 cases, many of them linked to the plant in town.
Both small towns have more cases than Edmonton, a city of a million people.
The two meat plants are some of the largest in Canada. Along with another Cargill plant in Guelph, Ont., they process 95 per cent of Canada’s meat, according to the National Farmers Union.
The spectre of the virus hanging over the plants has created tension within some families. Workers are adamant that even with the threat of the virus looming, they need to show up to support their loved ones.
Their children, meanwhile, just want their parents to be safe.
“All the immigrants here are committed to that job because they can’t get any other job. They can’t speak English, they don’t know how to write, they don’t know how to read,” Ahmed said.
“It makes me feel really angry. I don’t even know at that point what to do. Even though I told them to stay home, they don’t want to, they can’t, they have no choice.”
Ahmed’s stepfather moved here from Guinea almost two decades ago, and has spent more than 10 years at the plant.
Since the outbreak, Ashraf said, the company had implemented screening protocols at the entrance where they check every employee for COVID-19 symptoms and have distributed masks and gloves to workers. JBS did not confirm what protective measures are in place. Cargill outlined their screening protocols in an April 29 news release.
Ashraf is still worried about getting infected, but says the bigger concern is losing his job. He says the company requires a doctor’s note saying they’re sick in order for workers to stay home on paid leave.
“It makes me mad. It makes everybody mad. Nobody wants to work. But nobody wants to lose their job,” Ashraf said.
“If I’m not going to work, how I get my pay? If they fire me, what can I do after?”
Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA, the parent company of the Brooks plant, did not answer a question about whether workers need sick notes to stay home, but said in an email that “no one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for missing work due to being sick.”
Benyat Zeki, another Brooks resident with a relative who works at the meat plant, started a petition calling for the JBS plant to close for two weeks and for an in-person third-party inspection of the site to ensure it’s safe. UFCW Local 401 is also calling for a two-week closure.
Zeki said she is alarmed that JBS has not voluntarily closed the facility after two deaths were linked to the outbreak there.
“What’s so sad is that that wasn’t enough to change the narrative or to give greater support. They’re just kind of numbers,” Zeki said.
“My family member is still working there. They’re at the plant right now, so when they come back, that’s putting my house at risk.”
Bashir Mohamed, an Edmonton writer and activist whose own father once worked at the Brooks meat plant, wrote an article for Progress Alberta criticizing Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, for using language he feels unfairly blames racialized immigrant workers for community transmission.
In April, Hinshaw said overcrowded housing and carpooling to work were factors for the high rate of transmission in High River. Mohamed said the reason workers find themselves in those situations is because of external economic factors, such as how much they get paid.
“She’s essentially suggesting the reason why they put themselves in that situation is because of some cultural thing,” Mohamed said. “When in reality they’re in very precarious positions — if they don’t show up to work they’re going to face consequences. And I know this for a fact because my dad worked in one of these plants.”
In a statement to the Star, Hinshaw said while work site conditions, carpooling and living arrangements all play a role in the spread of COVID-19, there are many factors that lead to community transmission, which is “true in every outbreak and is in no way unique to Cargill.
“As Chief Medical Officer of Health, I want to be clear: the workers at this plant should not be blamed for this outbreak,” she said in a statement.
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“It is essential that we not stigmatize anyone infected with this virus. These are difficult times and we all need to work together — everyone in communities across the province — to get through this.”
Abdulkadir, a worker at the Brooks plant who moved to Canada from Somalia about seven years ago, was in isolation for two weeks after getting sick, but tested negative for COVID-19. He says he and his family were showing symptoms but did not ultimately get infected.
“Now I have no choice but to go back to work Monday,” he said last week.
“Still, I’m worried. … If somebody’s not going outside, and then you bring the disease to them and you’re going to infect the whole family, really it’s tough.”
But he said despite the risk working at the factory poses, he has no choice but to continue working because the $ 2,000 a month he would get from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit wouldn’t be enough to support his large family.
“If I’m not working, how am I going to feed myself and my family? Just tell me,” he said with frustration.
In a poll conducted by the union representing employees at the Cargill and JBS meat plants, 75 per cent of workers said their employers and the government are not doing enough to keep them safe.
Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said the high rates of infection in Brooks and High River shouldn’t be blamed on workers, the majority of whom are immigrants, racialized or temporary foreign workers.
He it’s impossible to practise social distancing on the processing floor.
“Instead of acknowledging that these packing houses have a systemic problem — they’re old, it’s elbow to elbow … what they’re trying to do is reframe the issue around too many people driving to work in a car, or too many people living together,” he said.
Antonio, a JBS plant worker who tested positive for COVID-19 and has been in isolation for nearly two weeks described conditions at the facility as people working “side by side.”
“How could they say there is a social distancing inside the floor? You work two or three feet (apart), there is no six feet or two metres away,” Antonio, who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines, told the Star.
“Workers now in the plant, like me, are fearing to go back to work because we have a lot of cases now.”
Hesse said hundreds of employees haven’t been showing up to work at the JBS plant because they don’t feel safe. He said the company has merged two shifts into one to fill in the labour gaps, leading to even more crowded conditions. A worker confirmed that the shifts have been merged.
JBS did not answer a question about the merged shifts and whether that has led to additional challenges with physical distancing.
Hesse said JBS has offered numerous incentives to employees so they will continue coming to work. They added an additional $ 4 an hour for workers and Hesse said there’s also a $ 600 bonus in May for workers “in good standing” who continue to attend work.
“So of course, for people who are economically disadvantaged or desperate for that matter, you wake up and you don’t feel well, you’re (still) going to work because you want that 600 bucks,” He said.
Mohamed believes the Cargill plant would have been closed sooner if the majority of its workers weren’t immigrants, racialized or temporary foreign workers.
“If anywhere else in this province accounted for 26 per cent of the total (COVID-19) cases, there would be outrage, people would be fired, people would have to resign,” he said.
He argues, for example, there would be a very different outcome if the outbreak exploded on the University of Alberta campus.
“I guarantee you in one day the campus would be shut down and people would be held accountable,” Mohamed said.
“To me it’s not one small mistake,” he added. “It’s a tragedy.”
Mohamed said he wanted to use his voice to bring attention to what immigrant workers are facing because he feels their struggles are being ignored. But most importantly for him, it’s personal.
He remembers standing at the door of their Edmonton home as a child and saying goodbye to his father, who would go to Brooks and work at the meat plant for months. It took a toll on him and his family, but it was the only way to make ends meet.
“He applied to so many places and one place that would accept him was a meat packing plant,” Mohamed said. “It was precarious work. It was dangerous work. It was difficult for the family, because he was gone for months.
“I think a lot of people would wonder why you would put yourself in such a precarious position. For him, it was so I could have a future.”