Neoliberalism, Packinghouses, and COVID-19

Nicholas Fast, University of Toronto

Across Canada and the United States during the spring of 2020, thousands of workers in meat-processing plants contracted COVID-19 through workplace spread. The most notable case in Canada was that of High River, Alberta, where almost half of the 2000 workers contracted the virus and spread it within the surrounding community. Two workers in Cargill’s High River plant – Heip Bui and Armando Sallegue – died as a result of contracting the virus. [1]

The global pandemic has brought neoliberalism to the fore of analyses concerned with interrogating how people work. More specifically, academics and non-academics alike have been confronted with the lasting impacts of deregulation over the last four decades vis-à-vis “unskilled labour,” racialized workers, and the workplaces where skill, race, gender, and class intersect. In the case of major packing firms in Canada – namely Cargill and Maple Leaf – these operations are both geographically and psychologically distant from the urban, industrialized core that most Canadians now inhabit. A consumer placing a packaged food product into their cart happens at the end of a very long supply chain that renders social and economic circumstances “invisible.” [2]

Neoliberalism is behind two central factors that contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the packinghouse: the deregulation of health and safety protocols on the plant floor and the increased use of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFWs). The push for increased productivity and general acceptance that competition is natural – even desired – worked with decreasing regulatory guidelines issued by the state to foster an atmosphere where changes to the work environment could not be opposed. These trends were coupled with attacks on unions and a changing workforce through the processes of deskilling. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, the most “skilled” jobs – separating the hide from the cow – of the production process were usually held by white men while women and non-white men did more repetitive and narrowly defined tasks. Enabled by weakened unions – such as the previously strong Amalgamated Meat Cutters or United Packinghouse Workers – with little power to resist in the 1970s, firms continued to “deskill” their workforce and increase the pace of production lines to meet postwar consumer demand for meat. Since many of these packing plants were located in areas of the city with a higher concentration of immigrants, firms had a steady supply of cheap labour to pull from to meet their deskilling needs. [3]

However, as firms migrated from urban centres like Vancouver, Toronto, and Winnipeg to rural areas like High River, Alberta, they could not transport entire workforces to these new plants and drawing in a stable workforce from rural areas proved difficult. [4] Firms continued to hire immigrant workers but these rural communities did not have enough people to meet the needs of increased production. To solve this labour shortage, firms also turned to the federal government’s TFW program. Engaging with the countless cases of employer abuse and intimidation both in union and non-union workplaces would far exceed the room permitted for this blog post, but what the TFW program has created is a reserve army of labour not permitted to engage with the functions of the state that control their existence. [5] Workers in the TFW program are permitted into Canada for short-term work contracts but have no avenues for permanent residency or citizenship. Since workers in the TFW program cannot stay in Canada without an employer, changing employers or being fired brings risk of deportation. Employers use that power to keep wages down or ignore proper health and safety protocols. Unjust working conditions are described in endless exposés on the subject, but little has been done by firms or the state to rectify the issue. [6]

The by-product of Taylorism – the process of scientific management at the site of production to increase efficiency – and deskilling is that more workers are needed to do smaller, repetitive tasks. However the workspaces where production happens rarely increase in size. Skirting health and safety regulations, a table well away from the kill floor that used to have one person butchering and dressing the entire animal now has six or seven workers doing various tasks around the same space; people literally work “elbow-to-elbow.” Here, workplace injuries are common as workers are not only focusing on the knives in their own hands but the knives of other workers. With the spread of COVID-19, such working conditions not only contribute to observable injuries such as cuts, but have proven to be potent spreaders of viral infections among humans as well.

It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the policy tenets of neoliberalism – the rolling back of health and safety regulations and the state’s facilitation of a temporary labour pool – are among the leading causes behind the deaths of workers in packing plants across North America. COVID-19 has underscored forty years of neoliberal ideology within packing houses in Canada and the United States, both for workers and the firms that they operate within.

Nicholas Fast is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Guided by his past experience as a meat cutter, his current research focuses neoliberalism, disease, and packinghouses. 

[1] Joel Dryden and Sarah Reiger, “Inside the Slaughterhouse,” CBC News, 6 May 2020, https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/cargill-covid19-outbreak.

[2] Timothy Pachirat interrogates the “politics of sight” in his compelling work Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) 9—15.

[3] For an in-depth look at race hierarchies in packinghouses, see Rick Halpern, Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

[4] For further Canadian histories of meatpacking, see Michael Broadway “Meatpacking and the Transformation of Rural Communities: A Comparison of Brooks, Alberta and Garden City, Kansas,” Rural Sociology 72 no. 4 (December 2007): 568—582, and Ian MacLachlan, Kill and Chill: Restructuring Canada’s Beef Commodity Chain (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[5] One case that garnered special attention in Canada was that of a human rights complaint against a Tim Hortons franchisee owner in Dawson Creek, BC. Fabiola Carletti and Janet Davidson, “Who’s Looking Out for Tim Hortons’ Temporary Workers?” CBC News 12 December 2012, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/headlines/who-s-looking-out-for-tim-hortons-temporary-foreign-workers-1.1282019.

[6] “Temporary Foreign Workers from Guatemala Abused by Quebec Company: Labour Board” by The Canadian Pressposted on Global News’ website on 23 October 2019 is but one recent example (https://globalnews.ca/news/6075129/temporary-foreign-workers-from-guatemala-abused-by-quebec-company-labour-board/). Similar stories are found by entering the phrase “Temporary Foreign Workers Abuse” in the search bar of any news website.

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