The human machine

A COVID-19 outbreak at an Alberta slaughterhouse claimed 3 lives. A year later, at another plant, it happened again.


By Joel Dryden and Sarah Rieger, CBC News (Canada)

May 4, 2021


Hundreds sick. Three dead. And fear — of sickness, of not making rent, of neighbours laying blame because of where you work, the colour of your skin, the language you speak.


This spring, a coronavirus outbreak swept through an Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer, Alta., leaving devastation in its wake.


But it wasn't the first time this had happened.


Just under a year earlier, 185 kilometres south of the Olymel plant, past the ranches that supply much of Canada's meat, the same death toll and an even higher case count ravaged another plant — Cargill in High River, the site of the country's largest COVID-19 outbreak.


"It's like deja vu … it's the same situation," said Cesar Cala, a Filipino community activist who has been supporting meat-packing workers in Alberta.


"And again, the workers seem to be the ones suffering the brunt of this decision to keep on operating the plant at whatever cost and no really significant change to safety in the workplace."


How did such a large, and deadly, meat plant outbreak happen again? And will this be the last time?


CBC News spoke to eight current workers at the two meat-processing plants for this story. Workers were given pseudonyms so they could speak openly without fear of professional reprisal.


Both companies say they have followed strict pandemic safety protocols and have worked to safeguard and support their employees. Both say provincial health and safety officials validated the steps they took before, during and after the outbreaks.


Slaughterhouse workers say the first thing outsiders need to understand is their problems started well before the pandemic.


On the line ...


The outbreak spreads ...


'Two sharp edges of a knife' ...


Feeling blamed ...


The 'essential' worker ... 


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