Filipino workers at meatpacking plant feel unfairly blamed for Canada's biggest COVID-19 outbreak

The COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill meat plant in High River, Alta., is the largest linked to a single site in Canada, and the predominately Filipino employees at the plant say they're being unfairly blamed for the outbreak, which is up to 558 cases in workers and 798 cases overall.

As of Friday, 558 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in workers from the Cargill meat plant

Elma Ton, second from right, said she has been disappointed to see comments making fun of the Filipino community online in the wake of the Cargill outbreak. Her husband Rodel Ton, far right, works at Cargill. (Submitted by Elma Ton)

Arwyn Sallegue, an employee of Cargill's meat-packing plant in High River, Alta. — where 558 workers have confirmed cases of COVID-19 — said he's noticed an upsetting trend online.

Cases connected to the Cargill meat plant outbreak have increased dramatically over the past two weeks. As of Friday, there were 558 cases in workers from the plant, with 798 total cases linked to the coronavirus outbreak. It's the largest outbreak linked to a single site in Canada.

"I see a bunch of [comments] blaming us [for the outbreak], because they said it's in the households," he said.

"We cannot blame anybody. Everyone's a victim. Nobody wants to become sick and ill." 

Sallegue, who is a permanent resident of Canada, tested positive for COVID-19 on April 23 and has been in self-isolation. The same day, his father, Armando Sallegue, visiting Canada from the Philippines, also developed symptoms. He, too, was confirmed to have the virus.

"He's only a visitor here, and he doesn't have any health-care coverage," Sallegue said. "He was hardly breathing. He went to the ICU."

Arwyn Salleague's father, Armando Sallegue, who is visiting Canada from the Philippines, is in an intensive care unit after testing positive for COVID-19. (Arwyn Sallegue)

Elma Ton, whose husband works at Cargill, said she also has been disappointed to see comments online, specifically those that disparage multiple Filipino families living under one roof.

"I feel bad. Because instead of helping [the Filipino community], supporting them, understanding them, they're still making fun of us," Ton said.

"Filipinos are known to have strong family ties. So as much as possible, we love to live together."

Lisa Degenstein, who works for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society in High River, said she had heard of similar comments targeting the Filipino community over the past number of days.

"There's something a little disturbing happening, a bit of community backlash happening. People say, 'Hey, don't you work at Cargill?'" she said. "And isn't it a lot easier to look at someone who isn't white and start making assumptions."

Feeling blamed

One employee at the Cargill plant, a woman of Vietnamese background in her sixties, has died. 

Employees at the facility have accused the company of ignoring physical-distancing protocols — citing "elbow-to-elbow" working conditions — and of trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation. 

A separate outbreak at the JBS meat processing plant in Brooks now has seen 156 cases in workers from the plant, with two deaths — a worker and an individual linked to the outbreak. That plant remains open, operating at one shift per day.

A big chunk of the workforce at the Cargill facility are Filipino, some of whom are temporary foreign workers (TFWs) and others who are permanent residents. Employees interviewed estimated 60 to 80 per cent of the workforce is Filipino.

Cesar Cala with the Philippines Emergency Response Taskforce — a network of volunteers that seeks to support crises in the Filipino community — said many in the community are afraid to speak out about their experiences, especially TFWs whose stay in Canada is linked to their employment at these facilities.

Cesar Cala, a volunteer with the Philippines Emergency Response Taskforce, said many Filipinos feel like they're being singled out and blamed for the crisis at Cargill. (Cesar Cala)

But this has posed a challenge, as Cala said many in the community feel as though their concerns were not taken seriously.

"Many Filipino workers and residents sent a letter to the company asking that the plant be closed so that safety measures could be put in place, but no actions were taken," Cala said. 

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That letter was signed by more than 250 Filipino residents and sent April 12 — a day before 38 cases were confirmed by the union — calling for the plant to be closed for two weeks.

The plant remained open for the rest of the week, and 358 cases were confirmed five days later.

'Several pieces of this puzzle'

On April 18, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, along with Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, and other health officials, participated in a telephone town hall with Cargill workers. Dreeshen said he was confident the plant was safe.

Two days later, Cargill announced it would shut down the facility temporarily after it was announced that a worker had died.

"The situation got worse, and what [the Filipino community is] hearing from officials is that they are the ones spreading the virus," Cala said.

Hinshaw has said that many cases at the Cargill facility were likely exposed to COVID-19 weeks ago, and many factors have been identified that contributed to the spread. 

Employees continued to carpool to work after safety measures were introduced at the plant, Hinshaw said, and some employees of continuing care centres with outbreaks also lived in large households with Cargill workers.

Many family members living in those households also don't have enough space to self isolate, she said.

"There seems to be several pieces of this puzzle, and the challenge has been to put all of those pieces together," Hinshaw said Monday. "I would say that plant shutdown is not a single, only factor in this."

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Friday that there is no reason to assume that everyone connected with Cargill is infected with COVID-19. (Art Raham/CBC)

Later in the week, Hinshaw said those affected by the outbreak deserved support, and should not be restricted from accessing businesses like grocery stores or banks.

"There is no reason to assume that everyone connected with that facility is infected," she said. "The people who are affected by this outbreak are experiencing many difficulties, and they need support and compassion as we work to stop further spread."

Challenges and frustrations

Cala said the realities of transportation and housing are out of the control of many employees at these facilities. Having sent a letter voicing their concerns before numbers of confirmed cases skyrocketed, Cala said they now feel they have been unfairly blamed.

"That's why I think it's important that public leaders need to speak out and say, no, this is our common, collective issue, it's not an issue of the Filipino community," Cala said. "No one is covering their backs. It's more like, 'Hey, you're partly to blame for this.' That's not very good to hear."

Cargill is one of the two primary beef suppliers for McDonald's Canada, and normally processes about 4,500 cattle per day at this time of year. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Daniel Sullivan, a spokesperson with Cargill, said the company was working with health officials and community organizations to provide further support for TFWs and other employees.

"Our workers have been deemed essential – like healthcare workers and first responders – and we are committed to supporting them," he said in an email to CBC News. "It is important to know that all TFWs are union members with the same wages and benefits as other workers in our facilities."

Sallegue, still in self-isolation as he awaits news on his father in ICU, said he hopes that foreign workers can receive the support they need.

"Only thing I'm feeling right now is, we need support. We are here to work, to contribute and help," he said. "I hope you will not blame our community."

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