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Pandemic-battered beef industry may still be in for a rough ride

While Cargill has improved its pandemic protocols, the union representing plant workers wants to see more changes as they head into contract negotiations this winter

Cargill’s Canadian meat plants have made some progress in rebounding from the initial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a possible strike in the new year may pose a major setback for the company and the beef industry.

“The company has to fix the structural problems that led to the outbreak,” says Michael Hughes, the union labour relations officer of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada Union, Local No. 401, which represents plant workers.

Hughes says that while health and safety measures for workers have improved since the spring at the High River plant, a subsequent outbreak of five cases at the Case Ready plant in Calgary shows that the company didn’t take the lessons from one and apply them to the other.

In April, the High River plant experienced an outbreak in which nearly half of its 2,000 employees tested positive. Three deaths were connected to the High River outbreak and, at the time, it was the largest workplace infection in North America. The ripple effect of the virus spread through the community.

After a two-week shutdown in late April, Cargill restarted the plant.

Jarrod Gillig says that current safety protocols include pre-screening anyone who comes into the plants with a series of health questions asked by a nurse. Gillig is president of business operations and supply chain for Cargill Protein North America.

Plastic barriers between work stations at the Cargill plant.
photo: Cargill

He adds that infrared cameras take employees’ temperatures and plexiglass dividers were installed at work stations. Workers use personal protective equipment (including masks and shields), hand sanitizers, take staggered breaks and follow strict protocols to keep them safe.

Gillig says that, in addition to work it has already done, Cargill is expanding locker rooms and cafeterias in both the High River and Guelph plants to facilitate better physical distancing.

Effect on the industry

Normally, the High River plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle a day, so the shutdown affected the entire supply chain.

“It was kind of like a bubble — and put pressure on cattle numbers. We’re still experiencing well above historic levels,” says Gillig, adding Cargill is processing on rotating Saturdays to help deal with the backlog. He thinks that volumes will level off by January 2021.

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At the beginning of May, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association estimated a backlog of 100,000 head as a result of reductions in processing capacity. A total of 6,000 to 9,000 head were being added daily at the time.

Unlike High River, Cargill’s Guelph plant, which processes about 1,600 to 1,800 cattle a day, stayed up and running through the entire first wave of the pandemic.

In terms of the second wave, Gillig says the company is being vigilant with its health and safety protocols, and has also ramped up busing to reduce transmission due to carpooling. They have seven specially equipped buses that transport 184 employees to and from work.

What the union says

While all the protective measures are appreciated, and relations with the union have improved at the High River plant, Hughes says that the UFCW is moving forward with an unfair labour practice complaint and other legal actions.

“There was more of an effort to ensure we were included during the Case Ready outbreak, because they realized how much of a liability it was to not have us involved the first time around,” Hughes says.

Hughes says that Cargill needs to listen better to workers on the shop floor who are “taking the risks.”

Union members taking action outside Cargill’s High River plant this spring, including Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW Local No. 401. Supplied by UFCW Local No. 401
photo: Supplied by UFCW Local No. 401

While Gillig says that there was a good deal of co-operation from workers in the High River plant in developing ways to make the plant safer, Hughes says that, in the early days, they just took an employee off the line, made them go on inspections and “ticked the box.”

Initially, Hughes says, the union representatives and members of the health and safety committee were shut out.

“We’d tried to have meetings with them and wanted to have our full-time union rep at joint health and safety committee meetings, and they were refusing us that,” he says.

In early April, when there were only 38 cases, Hughes says Cargill sent a letter to the union characterizing its behaviour as “inflammatory” for wanting the company to shut down and for “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“They never walked that statement back,” Hughes says.

After the initial outbreak, there were no more cases at the High River plant up to the time of writing.

“That’s very positive,” Hughes says, adding that the union has had a good amount of contact with plant management, which has been fairly responsive.

Lessons learned

For his part, Gillig says that the lessons learned during the first wave of the pandemic will help deal with the second wave.

“Hindsight’s always 20/20 as we go through our experience,” he says, and adds that their ability to flex between food service and retail was something they could improve by being more agile.

“We need to continue with communication through the supply chain — especially with producers because they’re step number one,” he says. He thought that everyone did a great job after the initial hit in making sure people were aligned in the switch from food service to retail.

Communication — in the form of online panel discussions and conferences with different players through the industry talking about what was working and what was not working — was, for Gillig, also a surprisingly positive outcome.

“I don’t know that we would have had the same dialogue — large and small producers, retail and food service — without the pandemic,” he says, adding that he feels the Canadian beef industry is strong and there’s prosperity in its future for everyone.

Another lesson Gillig points out is the need to be prepared — something that affected all industries at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Nobody could get masks or sanitizers — we need to look at that supply chain and shortening it up,” he says.

He says that the key to developing contingency plans is to try to determine scenarios you do not expect.

While he’s proud of the Guelph plant’s resilience in staying up and running through everything, he admits that the company was not prepared for the magnitude and effects of the outbreak at High River.

“We could not have predicted what happened in March,” he says, adding that, in addition to all the current precautions, Cargill is working on other ways, such as cross-training, to help employees get through a similar situation.

Gillig says that he personally hopes that, some day, all the barriers that keep employees away from each other — and the social interactions that are involved with that — can come down.

From a Cargill standpoint, he says they have to continue to evaluate the risks.

“It’s what science is telling us,” he says, adding that he didn’t expect anything to change any time soon.

Gillig says that the rapport with the union was good through the pandemic — something he says didn’t show up in the media reports.

“We’re proud of the relationships we have,” he says, adding that he didn’t foresee any problems with upcoming contract negotiations.

It’s a very different story from Michael Hughes, who says that 951 workers from the High River plant were diagnosed with COVID-19, while Cargill says it was 847.

The union is continuing to litigate —going forward with its unfair labour practices complaint, other grievances and possible further legal action.

Hughes says that employees who contracted the virus haven’t been compensated beyond what is statutorily necessary and that Cargill ended the pandemic pay premium at the end of August.

Positive tests for COVID-19 were surging again in Alberta’s general population in the fall.

“We’re heading into contract talks in the next couple of months,” he says. The contract ends December 31.

“Many were calling for us to strike last spring, but it would have been illegal and considered a wildcat.”

While Hughes says he’s hoping for a positive outcome, he also says the union has 2,000 members at the High River plant who are demanding some form of justice and that there’s a possibility of a strike in the spring of 2021.

“Their tone had better be about fixing the structural problems that led to the outbreak in the first place,” Hughes says about entering contract negotiations with Cargill. “Namely, not listening to the employees, not listening to the union and putting production before people.”

Note: For a panel discussion including Jarrod Gillig as well as representatives from the beef production and restaurant industry, visit youtu.be/4HdTn1gMURo.

Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.

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Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.

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