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COMMENTARY: Coronavirus, Canada’s beef and the latest challenge to Trudeau’s government

Click to play video 'Employees return to work at Cargill meat-packing plant' Employees return to work at Cargill meat-packing plant
WATCH: (May 5) Doug Vaessen speaks with UFCW Local 401 Director Chris O'Halloran about the reopening of Cargill’s meat-packing plant in High River, Alta. – May 5, 2020

Workers arriving for the day shift at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., were met with a now-familiar sight near the front gate this week.

Labour activists were there, handing protective masks emblazoned with the words “Safety First” to any slaughterhouse worker who wanted one.

To maintain anti-virus social distancing protocols, union reps used poles to hand the masks to workers through car windows.

It’s now a strange daily ritual in the topsy-turvy world of COVID-19.

READ MORE: Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., reopens amid ongoing talks with union

In an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, most workers, employers and trade unions would be celebrating a worksite that managed to stay open during the crisis.

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But union activists in Alberta are campaigning to have the Cargill plant shut down, after one of the biggest virus outbreaks in North America.

There have been around 950 positive cases of the virus at the massive plant that employs around 2,200 workers.

“People still are fearful, not just for their own health, but also for the health of their family members,” Michael Hughes, spokesperson for the union at Cargill, told me.

“They’re scared to bring this virus back to their family.”

That fear came true this week with the second COVID-19 death connected to the meat plant.

A Cargill employee’s father, visiting from the Philippines, died after contracting the virus.

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In a bitter twist, news of the death broke during a ceremony to honour 67-year-old Hiep Bui, a 23-year worker at the plant, who died from the virus last month.

The plant was “idled” for two weeks after the initial outbreak of the disease, but has now been re-opened under an essential-service designation from government.

“We care about our employees because we live and work here,” said Cargill spokesman Jon Nosh.

“We will continue to put people first and do the right thing.”

But the union is not buying it.

READ MORE: Legal action launched to stop Monday opening of Cargill meat plant in High River

“We have not seen nearly enough evidence to suggest that the plant is currently safe to operate,” said Hughes, from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has launched legal action to shut the plant down again.

“Meatpacking plants tend to be Petri dishes for COVID-19, yet the government and these companies seem to be quite happy to get on with business.”

But it’s hardly business as usual. The company is working with Alberta public health officials to bring in new safety measures at the plant.

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And now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced $252 million in emergency assistance for farmers and food processors.

That includes $77 million to retrofit meat-packing plants and other food-processing facilities to limit virus spread and speed up production.

But now that’s triggered another controversy: why are Canadian taxpayers footing part of the bill to protect workers at one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world?

“It makes me sick to my stomach, frankly,” Camille Labchuk, a lawyer with the advocacy group Animal Justice, told me.

“Cargill is a large multinational corporation, the largest privately held company in the United States,” Labchuk said, pointing to the company’s astonishing US$113.5 billion in total revenue and US$2.6 billion in profit in 2019.

“It’s owned by a family of multi-billionaires. And this is a company the Canadian government thinks it should fund at a time when the rest of us are suffering?”

Here’s the challenge for government: the massive Cargill plant processes more than one-third of Canada’s beef supply. Any disruption of its operations risks a critical break in the country’s food supply chain.

But when the pandemic is over, expect fresh questions to be raised about the operation of Canada’s meat plants, and the concentration of ownership by a small group of companies.

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Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.