More than 900 COVID-19 cases at Cargill plant, but governments allow it to reopen

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Cargill Incorporated is the largest privately held company in the United States, and that means it is essentially a family business. 

You cannot buy Cargill shares on the Toronto, New York or any other stock exchange. The descendants of William Cargill, who founded the company in 1865 as a grain storage operation, own 90 per cent of the company.

But if it is a family business, Cargill is no mom-and-pop operation. 

The company has grown over the past century and a half into a multi-tentacled corporate behemoth, involved in everything from grain to livestock to potash to steel to transport to financial services. In 2018, Cargill and its various subsidiaries reported revenues of over $110 billion

Cargill has operations on five continents, in more than 70 countries, including Canada, and the company's meat-packing plant in High River, Alberta is a tiny piece of that worldwide empire. 

In this country, however, the High River plant has an extremely high profile. It is one of the epicentres of COVID-19 in Canada -- in all of North America, in fact -- with over 900 reported cases out of 2,000 employees. That's almost half the workforce.  

Two people have died in connection with the Cargill outbreak -- one, a plant worker originally from Vietnam; the other, an infected plant worker's father, who had been visiting from the Philippines.

Cargill initially resisted pleas from workers and their union to close the plant, but finally relented, in late April. After only two weeks, it hastily reopened, on Monday, May 4, giving the largely immigrant workforce the Hobson's choice of either going back to a potentially fatal workplace or losing their jobs. 

Neither the workers, nor their union think the plant has become safe. 

The union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), has gone to court to force a shutdown, until Cargill can absolutely guarantee safe and healthy conditions for all employees. 

The UFCW does not think the notoriously low-paid plant workers should have to risk their lives to fatten the balance sheet of a U.S.-based transnational corporation that ranks number 15 on the Fortune 500. 

Kenney and Trump on the same wavelength

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has a different view from that of the union and the workers it represents. 

The premier, and former Harper Conservative government cabinet minister, appropriates a concept meant to describe access to necessary basic foodstuffs we all need for sustenance – food security – and applies it to the much different situation of the High River plant. The Cargill workers have to do their part, the Alberta premier argues, to ensure food security for Canadians. 

The truth is that Canada's food security does not depend on meat from Cargill or any other commercial operation. 

If our local butcher runs out of hamburger for the barbecue, we all have other nutritious options. There are, for instance, the protein-packed pulses -- chickpeas, lentils and the like -- that farmers in Saskatchewan grow in great quantity. 

In the U.S., as in Canada, COVID-19 has been particularly hard on the meat-packing industry, forcing more than 20 plant closures, and causing meat shortages on grocery shelves. Some fast food chains have even had to take hamburgers off the menu. 

Corporate executives in the meat industry told U.S. President Trump that they were reluctant to reopen their U.S.-based plants for fear of lawsuits. The U.S. is a far more litigious country than Canada. 

The president's response was to give the corporations cover, by invoking the U.S. Defense Protection Act (DPA). In effect, the president is forcing the corporations to reopen their plants. 

The purpose of the DPA is to allow a president to harness the resources of private industry to serve public needs in time of war or national emergency. Many have urged Trump to invoke the act to assure production of personal protective equipment for front-line workers during the pandemic, but he has refused. 

Now, Trump is using the extraordinary powers of the DPA to force workers back to dangerous plants, while shielding their bosses from responsibility.

As for the High River Cargill plant workers, they fall under provincial labour jurisdiction. And the Alberta premier has already indicated he will not lift a finger to protect them. But there might be a way that federal authorities could step in.

Jagmeet Singh urges Trudeau government to act

In Canada, it is the federal government that has authority over food safety, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh believes the Trudeau team should assertively use that power to protect the Cargill workers.

Singh put the question to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland during the House of Commons' weekly face-to-face session on Wednesday, May 6.

"Food safety and worker safety cannot be divorced," Singh told the House. "Will the government ensure that the Cargill workers are in safe work conditions?"

Freeland, in a manner all-too-typical of Liberal politicians, dissimulated, offering sympathy but no action.

"The member opposite is quite right that where the federal government has particular authority in food processing is to guarantee the safety of the foods processed there for Canadians to eat," she said, and then expressed some vague sentiments of concern. "When it comes to Cargill and food processing, I agree with the member opposite that it's something we all need to be particularly concerned about, and we have been."

The NDP leader was not satisfied. 

"Will the government commit to using the authority that it has under food safety to ensure that workers are also safe, because there's no way that food can truly be safe if workers are in dangerous conditions and if workers are contracting COVID-19?" Singh asked, adding: "If workers are dying, the food can't be safe."

Freeland would not budge. The Trudeau government wants to get credit for caring, without pushing the envelope in dealing with the most prickly and confrontational provincial government in the country, Alberta's. 

"I think we all understand there is a very clear difference between the duty to inspect food which is produced and to ensure that that food is safe for Canadians, and even more sacred duty to ensure that workers are working in safe conditions," Freeland answered. "We take both of those extremely seriously and we are aware what falls specifically in our jurisdictions. Having said that, we care very much about all Canadian workers." 

Freeland's assertion that responsibility for the safety of a product that consumers eat does not include making sure a processing plant is not an active breeder of a deadly virus reflects a narrow and limited understanding of the federal role. 

There is no evidence of food borne transmission of COVID-19, or of food packaging carrying the virus, according to authorities in both the U.S. and Canada.

But experts have not always got it right about COVID-19 since the outbreak at the beginning of this year. At this stage, all we know for sure is that there remain many unanswered questions about it.

'The worst company in the world'

What is not in doubt is the kind of company we're dealing with. 

Not too long ago the U.S. environmental organization Mighty Earth undertook a study of the social and environmental impact of Cargill's operations and issued a report they called "The Worst Company in the World."

The report opens by stating "when it comes to addressing the most important problems facing our world, including the destruction of the natural environment, the pollution of our air and water, the warming of the globe, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, child labor, and global poverty, Cargill is not only consistently in last place, but is driving these problems at a scale that dwarfs their closest competitors."

The report details how Cargill has become more powerful than governments and has betrayed repeated promises to adhere to high environmental standards. 

"Nowhere is Cargill's pattern of deception and destruction more apparent than in its participation in the destruction of the lungs of the planet, the world's forests. Despite repeated and highly publicized promises to the contrary, Cargill has continued to bulldoze ancient ecosystems, sometimes within the bounds of lax laws -- and, too often, outside those bounds as well."

With the advent to power of virulently anti-environmental Trump in the U.S. and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, there is now virtually no limit, Mighty Earth says, to Cargill's capacity to ravage rainforests, savannahs and other vital habitats. 

Mighty Earth cites many examples. 

One of those is that of "the Gran Chaco, a 110-million-hectare ecosystem spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay." 

This ecosystem "is one of the largest remaining continuous tracts of native vegetation in South America, second in size only to the Amazon rainforest. These forests are home to vibrant communities of Indigenous Peoples … who have depended on and coexisted with the Chaco forest for millennia."

Cargill, the report tells us, is now actively endangering both the people and other inhabitants of the Gran Chaco to produce a cash crop -- soy -- that feeds the animals which become Big Macs and Whoppers.

"Once the impenetrable stronghold of creatures like the screaming hairy armadillo, the jaguar, and the giant anteater, Cargill has infiltrated the Gran Chaco, bulldozing and burning to make way for vast fields of genetically modified soy."

Mighty Earth also documents Cargill's use of violence to subdue Indigenous peoples, its exploitative labour practices, including child labour, and its predatory practices that have driven competitors out of certain businesses. 

This is the company that Jason Kenney says must be allowed to operate, uninhibited by health concerns, to assure our food security. 

If you believe that, you might also believe that injecting bleach into your veins can cure COVID-19, or that, as many opinion leaders in the U.S. say, it is necessary to accept that thousands must die in the interests of what they call the economy. 

The owners of Cargill are not personally offering to sacrifice their lives. They are offering their employees' lives instead.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

 

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