Meat Processing and the Pandemic: Why the Industry Failed Its Workers and What We Can Do About It
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
By Jordan Coop
Themes: Work, Economy, Policy, Health, Enterprise
Meat processing plants in Canada have been at the centre of some of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in North America. In Alberta, over 1,500 cases and three deaths have been linked to just one plant. Despite the severity of the outbreaks, however, plants have rejected calls from workers and unions to suspend production. One plant even offered a $500 bonus to employees who had perfect attendance during the pandemic. This desperation to remain open is due in large part to the intense consolidation of the meat processing sector: when only two plants in Alberta process 70% of Canada’s federally inspected beef , even a temporary closure can have major consequences. As a response, the federal government has threatened disciplinary actions for workers who refuse to be reassigned to COVID-positive plants. Justin Trudeau has claimed it is a “balancing act” between workers’ safety and ensuring meat production continues unabated.
But how did we get here? Why were the outbreaks so severe in these plants? And what can be done about it? To answer these questions, it is worth briefly exploring the history of the meat processing industry in Canada. Through this history, it becomes clear that the capitalist drive for efficiency and profit maximization has fostered conditions that helped accelerate the COVID-19 outbreaks. The concentration of the industry, combined with intensified working conditions and a reliance on cheap and vulnerable migrant labour, created a perfect storm for the spread of the virus. I argue that democratizing meat processing plants could help prevent situations like this from occurring in the future. After all, in a democratically-run plant—where workers’ collective self-determination is a structural feature—it would be highly unlikely for employees to willingly put themselves in a situation where they risk their lives, just so the production line keeps moving.
A Brief History of the Meat Processing Industry in Canada
So, how did we get here? To contextualize our current moment, it is worth briefly exploring the history of the meat packing industry in Canada. In many ways, the history of the meat industry is the history of industrial capitalism. Its contours reflect realignments in regimes of accumulation: from small-scale, distributed production to concentration and vertical integration; from skilled labour and decent wages to cheap, deskilled labour; from local to global production; and from organized labour to atomization and precarity.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Canadian meat processing sector began to experience rapid growth and industrialization. To accommodate the increasing demand for meat consumption and international export, hundreds of small butcheries were absorbed by larger and more efficient enterprises. By the 1950s, this new and more concentrated structure had completely transformed the industry: 27 plants located in urban centres supplied most of Canada’s meat processing needs. But over the past 40 years, with the ascendance of neoliberal capitalism, the meat packing industry in Canada has undergone an even more intense consolidation. Today, 85% of the country’s meat processing is conducted by just three large plants: Cargill Foods in High River, Alberta and Guelph, Ontario; and Lakeside Packers in Brooks, Alberta which is operated by JBS Canada, a Brazilian-based multinational.
This trend toward consolidation has been driven primarily by the capitalist logic of profit-maximization. The recent restructuring of the industry, for example, was a direct response to falling profit margins during the 1980s—and, on that front, it has been decidedly successful. The Cargill family is now the fourth wealthiest family in the United Sates and is considered to have one of the largest concentrations of wealth in any family-controlled business. There comes a point, however, when an industry becomes so consolidated that restructuring is no longer a viable strategy for profit-maximization. In these cases, capitalists must extract more value out of labour, either by increasing its productivity or decreasing its cost.
Because meat is a commodity with little variation from one producer to the next, the most important factor in maintaining a competitive edge is getting the product out the door faster, whatever the human cost. Since its inception, therefore, the meat processing industry has been at the forefront of labour process modifications that aim to speed things up.
The implementation of carcass “disassembly lines” in the 1850s, for instance, is considered an important precursor to Ford’s infamously fast automobile assembly line. For this reason, the meat industry has also been one of the original pioneers of Taylor’s scientific management: changes to the labour process have historically been aimed at quickening the pace of work by deskilling and fragmenting tasks into discrete and repetitive actions, while simultaneously giving management more control. As a result of these changes, meat processing plants today process 900% more cattle per day than their smaller historical predecessors. Meat packing companies proudly attribute this increase in productivity to their “innovative” disassembly lines, where each worker performs a single task to break down carcasses as efficiently as possible.
The other way the meat industry has extracted more value out of labour is by making it cheaper. In the 1980s in Alberta, meat packing was considered a decent job: workers were unionized and pay was good. But as line speeds increased, wages decreased, and tasks became more repetitive, fewer Canadians were interested in the job. This allowed plants to recruit an “unskilled”, vulnerable, and racialized migrant labour force. In addition to reducing the cost of labour, the move toward migrant labour must also be seen as part of a systematic dismantling of workers’ ability to organize. After a period of tumultuous labour action in Alberta’s meat packing sector, including the Gainer Strike in 1986, operations eventually moved from urban centres to rural Alberta, where organized labour did not have the same history or strength as the industrial centres. The size of these new factories also meant that they required a labour force these smaller rural areas could not fulfill. So, companies began looking to an even cheaper and more vulnerable workforce—temporary foreign workers (TFWs), who can be paid 15% less than their Canadian counterparts. As we will see in the next section, the incessant drive for consolidation, efficiency, and ever-cheaper labour would result in deadly consequences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 and the Meat Processing Industry
In Canada alone, it is estimated that around 2,000 cases of COVID-19 can be traced back to meat processing facilities. But why were the outbreaks so severe in these plants? The short answer is that the combination of large concentrated facilities, intense working conditions, and a vulnerable labour force created circumstances favourable to the spread of the virus. Though there are environmental factors inherent to meat processing—like humidity and refrigeration—that are conducive to the transmission of COVID-19, the relentless drive for capitalist efficiency and profit-maximization also played a large role in accelerating the outbreaks.
For example, the kind of efficiency needed to process 4,500 head of cattle each day requires proximity. To achieve this, while also saving money on refrigeration costs, plants are designed to accommodate as many workers as possible: staff are crammed elbow-to-elbow on disassembly lines where they conduct repetitive tasks that can be both physically and emotionally gruelling; even lunchrooms and changing facilities are filled to the brim. And to keep up with demands for productivity, the pace of work is so intense that workers’ health and safety is often a secondary concern: the industry consistently maintains one of the highest workplace injury rates across sectors. During a COVID-19 pandemic, this sort of proximity and intensity—combined with heavy-breathing and shouting over loud machinery—makes for an ideal transmission environment.
But because implementing the appropriate safety and physical distancing measures would require slowing down production—or worse, from capital’s point of view, temporarily shutting down the plant and investing in plastic barriers or personal protective equipment (PPE)—there was a reluctance on the part of meat companies to act quickly and comprehensively. For instance, when Cargill posted initial safety warnings at the onset of the pandemic, many of the materials were only printed in English, despite dozens of languages being spoken at the plant. Even after workers at the plant began to test positive for COVID-19, they continued to work in close quarters with minimal physical distancing; some workers even reported being pressured to return to work after testing positive. To make matters worse, management not only ignored calls from workers and unions to shut down production, they incentivized coming into work by bribing employees with a bonus for not missing a shift in eight weeks. Understandably, many already vulnerable workers did not want to miss out on the opportunity for additional income during a difficult time. But that doesn’t mean they wanted to come into work and put themselves and their families at risk.
Due to a lack of adequate PPE and safety measures, many workers reported being concerned for their well-being: a union survey indicated that 85% of workers were afraid to come into work after initial cases were confirmed. However, since these plants are staffed primarily by TFWs whose residency status is tied to their employment, many workers had little choice but to continue working. TFWs can stay in Canada for up to four years; when their contract is up, their employer can nominate them for permanent residency—if they choose to. For this reason, TFWs fear being branded as “troublemakers” and tend to put up with work conditions that other workers might not.
Coming into work amidst a global pandemic is one such example. As COVID-19 began to spread in meat processing plants, companies knew that they could rely on TFWs to continue working. This left workers feeling betrayed: they felt that companies cared more about the bottom line than their well-being. And they’re right. These companies clearly failed their workers. They put profit before people.
Democratizing the Meat Processing Industry
So, what can we do about it? Many have argued that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the need for a fundamental restructuring of the meat processing industry. The system has become so concentrated that a small number of corporations can exercise tremendous leverage over farmers and consumers, while mistreating their workers at the same time. This concentration also leaves the supply chain incredibly vulnerable during a crisis: if one plant goes down, the economic reverberations can have catastrophic consequences across the entire agricultural sector. As a result, industry experts have called for a more distributed and decentralized model, where production is spread out across numerous smaller plants focused on regional production.
But decentralization is not enough. In fact, it may be the wrong approach altogether. Meeting the demand for meat processing depends on large-scale production, and keeping prices low for consumers requires an economy of scale. Moreover, building new, decentralized plants from the ground up is an expensive endeavour: it can cost anywhere between $300 and $400 million per plant. In this context, the centralization of production is not inherently bad—but, as the history of the meat packing industry makes clear, the centralization of corporate control almost inevitably results in negative consequences for workers.
Instead of focusing on decentralization as the solution, then, we should focus on worker control of existing plants. More specifically, we need to democratize meat processing plants so that workers have direct control over the labour process and share in the profits of the firm. This would involve having a system of collective governance based on the principle of one person, one vote, as well as giving workers the authority to decide how to distribute surplus. In short, workers would become their own bosses.
One example of this type of firm is the worker cooperative. Evidence shows that worker-controlled firms are not only just as productive as capitalist enterprises, but they are far less likely to put profit before people. In some cases, productivity and worker satisfaction is even higher due to the enhanced motivation that results from profit-sharing. Most importantly, however, since collective self-governance is a structural feature of democratic firms—either through direct democracy or elected councils—workers have a clear choice in decisions that impact them directly. Workers in these firms are therefore less likely to implement measures that adversely impact their working conditions or job security, such as line-speed intensifications or plant relocations.
It seems likely, for example, that under democratic control, workers at meat processing plants impacted by COVID-19 would have voted to shut down production much sooner. Rather than using profit for bonuses to incentivize coming into an infected workplace, it is possible that they would have decided to incentivize staying home instead. It also seems unlikely that TFWs would collectively decide to deport themselves, should they refuse to come into work during a pandemic. For these reasons, removing control from corporate management that seeks to maximize profit above all else—and placing it directly in the hands of workers instead—would have gone a long way in preventing the COVID-19 outbreaks.
While worker ownership of meat processing plants would likely further enhance the situation, it is not strictly necessary for democratic participation. The prevalence of TFWs and migrant labourers would also make worker ownership tricky, from a legal standpoint. Nevertheless, I still maintain that simply converting meat processing plants into worker-controlled democratic firms would have made a significant difference in slowing down the transmission of COVID-19. But more than that, workplace democracy in the meatpacking industry would also render the plants more resilient to crises like these in the future: since democratic firms have a constitutional obligation to prioritize the long-term needs of its members over short-term profitability, they tend to cope with downturns better than their for-profit counterparts.
Of course, democratizing the workplace is only one part of a broader political and economic restructuring that must happen if we are to avoid another crisis like COVID-19 in the future. The implementation of affordable housing and a universal basic income, for example, would help alleviate the economic desperation that compels people to go to work during a pandemic in the first place. But given the size and intensity of the outbreaks within meat processing plants, there is clearly a problem with the structure of the workplace itself. Unlike corporate-controlled enterprises, worker-controlled firms would have the political power to lobby for guaranteed paths to citizenship for temporary foreign workers. They would have the decision-making power to control the pace and intensity of work. And they would have the final say in whether they put their lives at risk during a global pandemic, just so the assembly line keeps moving. Something tells me they would vote against it.
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