The COVID-19 Pandemic and North American Meat Packing Plants

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the Olymel Red Deer plant which has now resulted in the indefinite closure of the plant is once again putting the spotlight on the conditions of workers in meat processing plants, who have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 across North America. Neo-liberal globalization has imposed inhuman conditions in the industry despite militant resistance of the workers. These include breakneck line speeds, a big contributor to the high rate of workplace injuries and illnesses, low pay, threats, intimidation and bullying, including the pressure to work sick even under COVID-19. The "help wanted" sign never goes down outside these plants and on the Canada Job Bank, reflecting the difficulties in recruiting and keeping workers. The meat packing giants rely heavily on the most vulnerable workers including refugees, undocumented workers in the U.S. and workers recruited through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Canada.

According to data collected by the Food and Environment Reporting Network in the U.S.,[1] as of February 12, at least 1,389 meat packing and food processing plants (569 meat packing and 820 food processing) and 387 farms and production facilities have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 87,237 workers (57,332 meat packing workers, 17,114 food processing workers, and 12,791 farmworkers) have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 374 workers (283 meat packing workers, 48 food processing workers, and 43 farmworkers) have died.

Former U.S. President Trump ordered U.S. meat packing plants to remain open on April 28, 2020. The U.S. Department of Labor imposed only two fines for failure to protect workers. JBS, the largest meat packer in the U.S., was fined $15,615 after 300 workers were infected and six died at its Greeley, Colorado plant. JBS racked up more than $1.6 million in profits from April to December 2020. Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, was fined $13,949 after 1,294 workers were infected and four workers died at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant. The president of the union representing the workers called the fines "an incentive to make these workers work faster and harder in the most unsafe working conditions imaginable."

In Canada not a single fine has been levied and the global oligarchs continue to operate with impunity. In addition to the outbreak at Olymel, there are currently eight additional outbreaks, defined as five or more cases, in meat and poultry processing plants in Alberta.[2]

The actions of workers and their families at Cargill have resulted in the RCMP opening an investigation into the deaths at Cargill's High River plant in 2020, and a class action suit is being prepared. The support of the authorities for the global oligarchs who consider endangering the lives of workers for their private benefit a "normal business practice" shows the extent to which the public authority has been destroyed. Workers who are fighting to hold the wealthy owners, as well as the authorities who serve them, to account are defending their rights and the interests of society as well.


1. U.S. Food and Environment Reporting Network

2. Outbreaks have been reported by Alberta Health at Cargill Foods High River, Cargill Case Ready Calgary, Lilydale poultry plants in Calgary and Edmonton, Harmony Beef in Balzac, Sofina Foods in Edmonton and Calgary, and Maple Leaf Poultry in Edmonton.

(Photo: UFCW)

This article was published in

Volume 8 - February 19, 2021 - No. 8

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