December 1, 2021
On a cold, windy November day, Freddy Vasquez cuts a small figure as the massive Cargill meat-processing plant near High River, Alta., looms behind him.
"Now hiring," reads a highway billboard propped up outside the plant, offering sign-on bonuses of $500 for day shifts and $600 for nights.
Hard hat on and mask affixed, Vasquez steps into a vehicle parked on the side of the highway. He says hello, takes off his hat and sighs deeply.
"I've got a massive headache today," he says. "I go to work with headaches. I come home with headaches."
Inside the plant behind Vasquez, union workers are voting in person on a new offer of settlement from the company. Among other measures, the offer features wage boosts and increased employee benefits.
"What we're asking is that, at least, they recognize what we're doing," says Alain Mendoza, who works on the harvest floor.
"All those things people don't want to do, we're the ones doing it."
For workers who have been without a contract since December 2020, this is a critical decision that, if accepted, will chart the course for employees at the plant for six years.
If this contract is rejected — and scuttlebutt around the plant suggests it will be — then the company and the union will go back to the drawing board.
Workers are interested in a raise, of course, but this contract represents something more important.
They say it's an opportunity to address years of unrealistic expectations driven by production that have led to injury and alleged mistreatment by superiors that have made many feel a sense of indignity.
All of this lands in the shadow of a massive COVID-19 outbreak in May 2020 that ripped through this plant, left hundreds sick and three dead. It colours all of the negotiations to come and remains extremely present to the people who experienced it.
This bargaining is a chance for employees to make their real, deeply felt frustrations heard, says Sean Tucker, an associate professor of human resource management at the University of Regina who specializes in worker safety.
"This dispute has the potential to lead to real improvement for workers at the High River plant, but also set a pattern for meat-processing workers at other plants in Alberta and across Canada," he says. "That's what I'll be watching closely."
There are sticking points. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, workers aren't happy about the lack of paid sick leave in the proposed contract.
As a part of that outbreak, at least 950 staff tested positive for COVID-19. Two workers — 67-year-old Hiep Bui and 51-year-old Benito Quesada — died of COVID-19, as did Armando Sallegue, a worker's 71-year-old father.
The new contract proposes that a so-called "COVID bonus" of $1,200 will be paid out to all active employees — but that's contingent on the union and the company resolving a number of pending grievances tied to the plant shutdown last spring.
They'll need to come to an agreement soon or workers will go on strike in the cold of an Alberta December.
There's no question that a strike at this plant would have serious implications for Prairie ranchers, many of whom have been struggling with drought and high feed costs. Cargill provides around 40 per cent of all beef processing in Canada.
But the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak that infected nearly half the workforce, as well as hundreds of family members and other close contacts, can't be forgotten.
Last year, after employees first began to test positive for COVID-19, some told CBC News they continued to work in close proximity despite physical distancing measures put in place by the company, adding that Cargill pressured them to return to work even after they contracted COVID-19.
The outbreak is the subject of a police investigation, although no charges have been laid. The company is also the target of a class-action lawsuit, the allegations of which have yet to be tested in court.
Workers say challenges at the plant existed before the COVID-19 outbreak and persist now.
They allege that production speeds are unrealistic and lead to injury and that worker shortages have put undue pressure on current employees. Others say they have felt harassed and disrespected by superiors while at work, sometimes being yelled or sworn at.
The disputes and the big problem
In a statement, a spokesperson with Cargill says to the company's knowledge, claims surrounding mistreatment from superiors are not true, although the company "can't speak to every conversation on the plant floor."
"Cargill is committed to treating people with dignity and respect in the workplace and in the communities where we do business," Daniel Sullivan says in an email.
Employees can report workplace concerns anonymously, Sullivan says, adding concerns are investigated thoroughly.
"Any investigation that results in substantiation of allegations results in appropriate corrective actions.”
This story is based on interviews with eight current Cargill employees, four of whom are members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401's bargaining committee, and are therefore public figures.
Four other employees who spoke to CBC News are rank-and-file members who were given pseudonyms so they could speak openly without fear of professional reprisal.
Vasquez falls under neither of the former categorizations. He's been a cleaner at Cargill for almost 14 years.
He was adamant about using his name as a part of this story and says it's because he's seen enough.
Vasquez starts work each day early in the morning, gathering scraps of meat or fat that have fallen onto the floor into garbage cans and putting them down a chute where they are rendered.
Two weeks ago, Vasquez says he came into work and saw a woman hunched near a packaging machine, clearly in pain. He put his hand on her shoulder and asked if she was OK.
No, she said, communicating in limited English. "My back, my back, my back," Vasquez recalls her saying.
The big problem, according to Vasquez, is the way that workers are treated at the plant.
"They treat you like an animal here."
On dignity and respect
Cargill Ltd. is a Canadian subsidiary of the U.S.-based Cargill, which in its 2021 fiscal year reported a net income of slightly more than $4.93 billion US, according to annual financial reports seen by Bloomberg News — making it the most profitable year in its 156 years in operation.
Workers interviewed for this story say while an increase in wages is important, especially after a devastating experience like the COVID-19 outbreak, what's more important is moving towards a cultural change within the plant.
"They don't respect people. They treat them badly. It's not all of them, but some of them," says Joseph Kog, who works on the kill floor.
Multiple workers say they have experienced or witnessed mistreatment from their supervisors within a loud, high-stress environment. Some say they've been yelled at when they're unable to keep up with the speed of the equipment.
Some tangible ways pressures could be relieved, workers say, could come through increasing staffing levels or slowing down the speed of the line as workers process meat products.
Documentation handed out by the union to workers calls for a "fair way" to monitor line speeds, new company-paid education and training programs for workers and large bonuses for work done during the pandemic, among other measures.
New language is also set to be added to the collective agreement under Cargill's latest offer. It reads:
"The company is committed to treating people with dignity and respect in the workplace."
It goes on to say:
"The company will not tolerate retaliatory acts against those who, in good faith, provide information or participate in an investigation."
For Vasquez, that language speaks to what he's been witnessing in the plant.
"[Cargill has been] around for over 30 years. And you're putting this in now?"
Life on the line
Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 — the union that represents workers at the plant — says that language emerged out of conditions from a plant that is "drunk on production."
"They speed up the line and workers get hurt, and they feel like cattle," Hesse says. "Direction is given to the workplace, and it's not always given respectfully.
"It can be, very much, a crack-the-whip culture. The notion that workers are human beings can be forgotten, unfortunately."
Work in a slaughterhouse is bloody, taxing and difficult, no matter where you are based. There's the harvest floor, otherwise known as the "kill floor," where cattle are bled, skinned and hung from hooks.
Then there's the fast-moving fabrication line, where workers cut meat with knives, trimming carcasses and removing fat.
There are, of course, safety measures in place at the plant. But staffing levels have been low over the past year, and workers have been frequently asked to come in and work voluntary overtime.
Sullivan, the spokesperson for Cargill, says main production areas are not fully staffed to budgeted levels, adding that was true before the pandemic began.
"We are constantly working to balance our production plans and consumer demand while putting the health and safety of our essential teammates first," he writes in an email.
There are ongoing recruitment efforts locally, Sullivan says, adding there is currently "a lack of skilled workers to fill key positions."
Even with the lower levels of staff in the building, many of whom are also required to work multiple Saturdays, the fabrication line still moves quickly. That repetitive work puts a lot of pressure on the body.
"Imagine this, the line speed, it runs fast, and fewer and fewer people are coming to work," says Mendoza. "We are always a couple of hundred [workers short] … but the line doesn't change."
Andres — not his real name — says it's very likely anyone hired locally won't last at the plant very long. Conversely, the temporary foreign workers the company bring in tend to have more longevity.
Those temporary foreign workers often speak limited to no English, and many have voiced concerns about their job security and what speaking up would mean when it comes to them remaining in Canada.
New research done by Bronwyn Bragg, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto, sheds further light on Alberta's meat-packing industry.
The research was done in conjunction with Dr. Jennifer Hyndman, also of York University, and Calgary-based community organization ActionDignity.
The researchers conducted surveys with 224 immigrant workers in the industry and completed 17 qualitative interviews.
"In Alberta, 67 per cent of people who work in meat-packing are classified as immigrants," Bragg says.
"It's very difficult to find people who will work in meat-packing, according to the industry itself, and yet they rely on this workforce. So the first key takeaway is that it's a highly vulnerable workforce."
According to Cargill's website, since 2007, the High River facility has recruited more than 1,000 foreign workers from the Philippines and Mexico.
When they arrive, they're often picked up at the airport by their employer, Bragg says — so all of their "settlement" happens through the employer.
"That produces a particular form of risk because workers do not have legal status in Canada."
Bragg says "workers are therefore less incentivized to speak up about conditions that may be unsafe."
Those challenges speak to the need for access to permanent residence on arrival for these workers, she says.
The deal and the damage done
Word comes back late in the evening — the company's latest offer has been soundly rejected by union members, by 98 per cent.
The next day, Cargill serves a lockout notice, which would be met by a move to strike from the union should an agreement not be reached.
On a bulletin board inside the plant, Dale LaGrange, the plant's general manager, writes in a letter addressed to staff that the company is "very disappointed to hear the result of the vote on the company proposal."
"We believe our proposal is fair," the letter reads. "Our wage offer is well above what other manufacturing agreements are settling for in Alberta."
The rejected contract proposed a wage of $23.25 per hour the Sunday following ratification for production staff, which would increase by 50 cents per hour each year up until Jan. 4, 2026.
Maintenance staff would have made slightly less than that, with a wage of $22.65 per hour following ratification.
About a week later, a new company offer is announced, backed by union negotiators. Workers will have three days to decide whether or not to accept it.
The Alberta government is also keeping a close eye on negotiations.
Speaking in late November during a media conference, Premier Jason Kenney said the province was monitoring the situation closely, adding any closure would have a "devastating impact" on the Alberta beef industry.
Time will tell how any potential new conditions will land for workers who feel like they’ve been ignored and mistreated, like Vasquez.
Today, his headaches have been bothering him. He says the headaches emerged out of an incident that took place a number of years ago — when, while working at a fast pace, he hit his head on a piece of machinery and was knocked out cold.
And though Vasquez has his grievances, he says he's at least not faced with the challenges that come with a language barrier.
"Imagine the people that don't speak English, what they're going through," he says. "Because they can't communicate to you the way I'm communicating to you."