The US-owned Cargill meatpacking facility in High River, Alberta — a town about 65 km south of Calgary with around 13,500 residents — was for a time the site of North America’s single largest COVID-19 outbreak, with 950 workers, almost half of the entire workforce, testing positive for the virus.
This outbreak led to the deaths of two workers, Benito Quesada and Hiep Bui, as well as Armando Sallegue, the father of a worker, who had been visiting from the Philippines. Now Cargill could be facing legal accountability for risking the lives of its workers in pursuit of profit.
Cargill, a company with an estimated worth between $30 and $40 billion, operates Canada’s largest meatpacking facility. The company has posted net profits of over $13.5 billion over the last five years. Cargill facilities depend on the labor of a largely immigrant workforce whose assembly line work demands elbow-to-elbow contact.
The company is now under investigation by the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RMCP) — Canada’s equivalent of the FBI — for criminal negligence after Quesada’s family submitted a complaint. Quesada, fifty-one, had supported his wife and four kids after emigrating from Mexico.
“I spent Christmas with one less person to hug,” his sixteen-year-old daughter Ariana told the CBC, Canada’s state broadcaster. “And all the executives and general managers, everyone at Cargill got to spend Christmas with their loved ones. And I did not get that.”
This is the country’s first criminal investigation into a workplace COVID outbreak. Criminal investigations into workplace fatalities in Canada are rare, according to University of Alberta law professor Eric Adams. “There are unfortunately too many workplace tragedies, too many deaths at work, but it’s not very often that you can connect the dots in a criminal sense to a single guilty individual,” he told the Calgary Herald.
The law requires a “marked and substantial” departure from reasonable conduct in order to lay criminal charges, which Adams says is a high bar to reach when it comes to the early days of the COVID outbreak, a time during which almost every workplace was in disarray.
Timeline of the Outbreak
April 6, 2020, marked Cargill’s first recorded COVID case. The same day, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 brought the case to the attention of management and requested personal protective equipment (PPE) for all employees. The UFCW asked for financial assistance for self-isolating workers and a restriction in the flow of traffic at the plant. The union also floated the idea of closing the plant outright for two weeks.
On April 12, 250 Filipino residents of High River wrote a letter to the mayor asking for the plant to be shut down temporarily. The letter clearly communicated the distress of their community, stating that “we the workers and our families are worried and scared for the possibility that we might bring the virus with us at home.”
After Cargill temporarily laid off half its workforce, the Department of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) did an inspection of the facility via Zoom. Alberta’s top doctor, Deena Hinshaw, and its Trump-supporting minister of agriculture, Devin Dreeshen, attended the meeting. OHS concluded that the workplace was safe so far as it was “reasonably practical for the employer” to have made it so.
Cargill held a telephone town hall with its employees on April 18 and told them it was safe to return to work. Management completely excluded UFCW 401 from this conversation. However, the local had already scheduled their own town hall for the next day, where employees expressed their anxieties about the workplace. A further UFCW phone survey confirmed that 85 percent of employees were scared to go into work.
Hiep became the first worker fatality on April 20, dying within days of falling ill. After her death, Cargill finally agreed to shut the plant down for two weeks, but by then the virus was ravaging High River.
Hiep’s husband of twenty-five years, Nga Nguyen, did not receive condolences from Cargill until after the company had received criticism for its lapse in appropriate etiquette. Hiep worked eighteen-hour days for Cargill for 23 years.
As one frustrated worker told CBC investigators who spoke to a dozen employees about the situation inside the plant:
Honestly speaking, they don’t care about their employees. They’re saying they can replace people at any time. They don’t care.
The facility reopened on May 4, despite union objections that it needed more time to assess workplace safety. Workers reported being pressured to come into work, even if they were exhibiting cold- or flu-like symptoms. Quesada, who had contracted the virus while the plant had refused to close down, died three days later.
None of this prevented the Globe and Mail — Canada’s newspaper of record — from naming Cargill one of Canada’s top employers of 2020.
Holding Companies Accountable
In addition to the criminal investigation, the province’s OHS is investigating the Cargill outbreak as well as another outbreak at the JBS Food plant in Brooks, Alberta. Alberta OHS is only able to level small fines for health and safety violations — a pittance for companies as large as Cargill and JBS.
Cargill is also facing a class action lawsuit seeking damages for friends and families of Cargill workers harmed by the spread of COVID at the facility. The suit claims that Cargill failed to take reasonable precautions in protecting its workers from COVID-19.
Labor leaders want tough penalties. Michael Hughes of UFCW 401 has said that the outbreak laid bare the “major limits on accountability” under the present OHS regime.
Western Canada director for United Steelworkers Steve Hunt agrees, arguing that COVID-19, without proper safety protocols, is as much a workplace hazard as the operation of heavy equipment:
Too often employers plead guilty to negligence in workplace death or injury in exchange for a fine. Killing workers should never be just a cost of doing business. Cargill is no exception.
Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour applauded the opening of the criminal investigation, expressing hope that it will begin an era of accountability for large corporations:
When I heard the RCMP had agreed to the family’s request to open a criminal investigation into the matter, I was emotional for two reasons. First, it suggested that the family may see justice in this case. But also, I think we may be opening a new chapter in terms of workplace health and safety, a chapter that could mean worker health and safety is given a higher priority. . . . there’s no doubt in my mind that many employers across the province, and indeed across the country, did not do enough to keep their workers safe in the context of COVID.
The criminal investigation of Cargill is welcome news, but if we really want to hold corporate leaders who have blood on their hands to account, we can’t just rely on the courts. We need more democratic workplaces, where employees aren’t compelled to go to work with the fear of falling deathly ill. Paid sick leave would be a good starting point, along with an overhaul of the temporary foreign worker program that treats immigrants as disposable labor.
The pandemic has laid bare the appalling conditions of meatpacking workers. Of course, the ill treatment of workers is not unique to Canada. The crisis currently unfolding knows no national boundaries. The US Congress recently announced it was launching an inquiry into 270 deaths related to outbreaks at meatpacking plants, underscoring the point that this is an international issue requiring an organized response. A patchwork of inquiries isn’t going to be enough.
The ultimate villain in this story isn’t any individual CEO or manager, although they certainly deserve their share of the blame. It’s an economic system that prioritizes profit over humanity, forcing vulnerable workers into cramped facilities for their employer’s profit while a highly infectious disease is proliferating in workplaces.