Cargill workers, many of them new to Canada, face isolation over COVID-19
OTTAWA -- Many of the workers at an Alberta meat processing plant hit with COVID-19 are Filipino and new to Canada, and now face an increasing sense of isolation over the outbreak.
The Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., has seen 949 cases of COVID-19, including one death of an employee, identified as Biu Thi Hiep. The virus forced a two-week shutdown of the facility, which ended on Monday.
Some community members say Cargill employees, most of them from the other side of the world, are being shunned by some in the community over the outbreak.
“People look at them the wrong way in a store or get worried because somebody looks like they might work at Cargill,” Julia Gwyn-Morris, executive director of the daycare Daydreams & Sunbeams Early Learning Centres in High River, told CTV News.
Others members of the community are helping out those in need, however, as they complete grocery deliveries for Filipino Cargill employees who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 and can’t return to work for the foreseeable future.
“We are helping each other, we are united in this time of pandemic,” Jocelyn Ruiz, who is helping with the deliveries.
In a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warned of discriminatory behaviour against "some Albertans coming from immigrant backgrounds," a majority of which work at meat packing facilities.
"Unfortunately, we’ve heard stories about people not being welcomed into businesses, in one case even being told to leave a bank, about discriminatory statements online and just attitudes that are really just un-Albertan."
He went on to thank workers at all meat plants.
"Those meat packing plants, they’re filled with folks who have taken jobs that a lot of other Canadians would not take. Difficult, tough, manual labour without which we would not have food security."
Anila Lee Yuen, president and CEO of the Calgary-based Centre for Newcomers, applauds Kenney’s response.
"It is extremely important that our leaders are very vigilant in being able to speak out against any racism," she said. "I was very grateful to see that message and to see so many ministers standing behind Premier Kenney."
She said her organization has heard directly from Cargill employees with experiences of racism.
"There are people that are feeling fearful, they’re feeling scared, they’re feeling like they could be targeted and some of have them being targeted."
SAFETY STILL A CONCERN
Following the two-week shutdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak at its facility, Cargill reopened its doors to workers on Monday with provincially approved safety measures in place.
Still, Cargill employees and union representatives have raised concerns about people returning to work so soon after the outbreak with a lack of safety precautions and equipment to prevent future spread.
“I can’t say I feel safe as long as the virus is still there,” one Cargill employee told CTV News. “I don’t know how I feel.”
Many of the children at Gwyn-Morris’ daycare have parents who work at the Cargill plant, while half of her own employees have become infected with the virus.
“We don’t think we should be open right now,” she said. “We think that businesses have to take a look at what the risks factors are.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the situation at the Cargill meat plant is another reminder of how the country must do a better job of protecting workers' health and safety, but insisted it’s a matter of provincial jurisdiction.
Responding to a question about the protests at the meat processor, Trudeau said the federal government will continue to support provinces in the "continued flow of food supply chains" and making sure workers in these industries are protected.
"One of the things that this crisis has shown us is various points of vulnerability both in our supply chains, but also in terms of people who work in jobs we find extremely important right across the country for feeding Canadians, for allowing our economy to run," said Trudeau during his Thursday press briefing.
He also touted the government’s agri-food announcement yesterday which included$77.5 million fund for food processors to purchase personal protective equipment and retrofit their facilities to abide by physical distancing rules.
NDP MP Heather McPherson raised the situation at Cargill during a virtual session of question period this week, asking Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland whether workers like those from the plant who feel unsafe going back to work would still be eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, Employment Insurance, or the Canada Emergency Student Benefit.
"When it comes to the Cargill plant, this is an issue that our government has been very closely engaged in," said Freeland.
"No Canadian worker at any time should feel obliged to go to work in unsafe conditions, in a time of coronavirus that is even more the case. The government of course should not penalize workers for doing the right thing and declining to go to work in unsafe conditions."
UNCLEAR WHO WILL RECEIVE WAGE TOP-UP
On Thursday, Trudeau unveiled a long-awaited wage top-up for essential workers, a cost agreement shared with the provinces and territories to keep employees on the job.
Trudeau said the federal government will be putting up three quarters of the top-up with the provinces and territories covering the other 25 per cent of the funds, totalling $4 billion.
"We’re relying on these workers now more than ever, and we will be there to support them. It will be up to each province and territory to determine who exactly qualifies for this wage increase but the bottom line is this, if you’re risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re making minimum wage, you deserve a raise," said Trudeau.
It will be up to the provinces to determine which workers qualify for the benefit, however, meaning it’s unclear whether the Cargill workers will indeed get a raise.
With files from CTV News' Rachel Aiello, Glen McGregor and Ben Cousins