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Alberta’s Meat Plant Workers Share Their Fears and Anger As Cargill prepares to reopen, voices from the frontlines of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.

They fear the virus. They are concerned about the futures. They worry for their communities.

And they say neither the government nor two foreign-owned companies, which account for 70 per cent of the nation’s beef slaughtering capacity, are doing enough to ensure their safety.

They say the companies didn’t provide adequate protective gear for the people who butcher Canada’s beef until it was too late.

The Tyee interviewed five Alberta employees of two meat plants, parts of different international conglomerates. The people interviewed are members of a largely immigrant work force that speaks dozens of languages and now finds itself at the centre of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.

Those who work at the JBS meat-processing plant in Brooks wondered why it has never shut down in order to do a thorough disinfection and increase its safety measures.

Those who work at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River said the company has lied about the protections provided, as well as compensation paid.

As one shared, “Why did this virus spread? It came from the fabrication floor where there is no airflow, and we are working elbow to elbow and there is no distancing. Where are the safety precautions? They said they did the safety precautions. No they didn’t.”

Now that worker and others fear returning to work when the Cargill plant reopens Monday. Among that plant’s employees, 921 out of 2,000 are now infected. At least seven workers are in hospital and five are in intensive care. One Cargill worker and a close contact have died.

The contagion has killed another worker at JBS. Several are in hospital.

The United Food and Commercial Workers says Cargill represents the largest facility outbreak in the embattled meat packing business in North America. The union is taking legal action to stop Cargill from reopening Monday, its president Thomas Hesse expressing no confidence that proper safety procedures are in place.

Representatives of Cargill and JBS have said from the beginning of the outbreak that they were making adequate efforts to protect their employees. Cargill says it has installed new barriers and restricted carpooling among other new measures before reopening.

Industrialized hot zones for infection

Last month, an outbreak at the Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota sickened 783 workers. It spread into the community causing another 200 cases, creating the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the United States.

Due to their industrial nature and demands for efficiency and close proximity, the meat packing business has become a focal point for the pandemic, creating bottlenecks in the food supply.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump has invoked war-era measures to keep the big meat plants open while local governments have advocated for temporary shutdowns to control serious outbreaks.

Many rural communities are paying a heavy price for the industry’s bigness: In the U.S., rates of coronavirus infection are 75 per cent higher in rural counties housing large beef, pork and poultry-processing plants, a USA Today investigation found.

Southern Alberta has now joined them. It is now recording the highest infection rates in the province at more than 250 cases per 100,000 people. According to Alberta Health Services, it also has an infection rate for positive cases higher than Calgary at six per cent. More than 20 percent of all COVID-19 infections in Alberta can be traced back to two meat-packing plants.