How Much Is the Life of an Essential Worker Worth?

The pandemic turned retail and food workers into heroes, but most face risks that they never signed up for

A shielded worker cleans in an empty warehouse

The wind whips against Nguyen Nga’s grey cargo pants, pleating them haphazardly. It’s the first Monday in May 2020, a few hours after the Cargill meat-packing plant in nearby High River, Alberta, reopened and exactly two weeks after Nguyen’s wife, Hiep Bui, died of COVID-19, which she contracted while working there. Nguyen is standing on the green-and-beige grass of Forest Lawn High School, near their Calgary home—now his alone.

Through an interpreter, he is trying to explain how he is feeling, but he can’t because, really, he isn’t feeling anything at all. He’s numb. Hiep worked at the plant since 1996, nimbly picking bones out of beef destined to become hamburger meat. She started to feel ill on Thursday, April 16, but finished her eight-hour shift, sitting on cold metal as an industrial fan blew frigid air at her back. The sixty-seven-year-old was charming and friendly at work, doling out candy to coworkers and, as one put it, “always winning for ‘never-absent employee.’” Her colleagues were probably surprised when Hiep called in sick, that Friday, with what she thought was the flu. The next day, an ambulance rushed her to the hospital. The day after that, she was gone; Nguyen didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

As COVID-19 case counts surged, Hiep hadn’t had the option to stay home, cocooned in a virus-free environment. The pandemic had created a new class of front line workers: those employed in grocery stores, processing plants, distribution centres, farms, and factories. Everybody needed them to keep working. They were called “essential,” but most had little job security and therefore scant ability to speak up about mistreatment or unfair practices. Predictably, many of them got sick. Some died. Each punch of the clock was a possible death knell, for themselves and their families.

Nguyen stands alone on the grass, in front of a condolence fruit basket and a white banner with orange hearts, attempting to put words to a constellation of grief. “I want to find a way to join my wife,” he tells the crowd gathered at the memorial service. “I just want to end my life.”

Nguyen and Hiep escaped Vietnam on the same boat after the war. They landed at the same refugee camp, fell in love, and were only briefly separated when Hiep immigrated to Canada. A year later, in 1993, Nguyen was able to follow, and the two were reunited and married. They had a happy, full life, but no children. Nguyen confessed through his interpreter that he had worried about his wife dying and leaving him alone. Now that it had happened, well—the interpreter trailed off as Nguyen did, ending with a plaintive shrug, palms to the sky. The memorial, organized by Action Dignity, a community-based nonprofit that supports and advocates for the city’s ethnocultural groups, was in effect more of a press conference. For both Action Dignity and Nguyen, the event became a way to immortalize Hiep into more than “the Vietnamese Cargill worker who died.”

By then, the plant had laid a notorious claim to the worst workplace outbreak in North America. Almost half of its 2,000 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and another 609 cases in Alberta had been linked to Cargill employees. At least three, including Hiep, would die. The explanation for this disastrous record was both terrible and simple: Cargill hadn’t done enough to protect its workers.

As Edmonton’s poet laureate, Nisha Patel, wrote in a rage-fuelled poem named for Hiep, “I didn’t believe in revenge until I learnt that only managers got the masks.” Later media investigations showed that, indeed, Cargill did not widely supply masks to workers last March. Nor did it initially make other changes that might have helped, like installing plastic shields or applying distancing rules. The plant disassembled 4,500 cows per day, all along tightly packed lines, and introducing such measures would have ground down productivity. Some workers bought their own masks. Often, they reused them, sometimes for weeks. Other workers tied bandanas over their mouths like cartoon bandits. Not every worker wore protection: Cargill didn’t require it, and at that time, the public hadn’t widely adopted masks either.

A Globe and Mail report revealed that many workers felt pressured to come to work even when they were sick. Multiple employees told the Globe that they were cleared to return despite symptoms, unfinished self-isolation periods, recent international travel, and—most maddening of all—positive COVID-19 test results. What’s more, Cargill released its info bulletins to employees only in English, further sowing confusion at a plant where many employees are temporary foreign workers and new Canadians. It’s likely that many were not able to understand them.

As COVID-19 case counts climbed too high to pretend the situation was business as usual, Cargill ordered the plant’s temporary shutdown. Perhaps predictably, the company admitted neither fault nor regret. If anything, its later statement detailing new safety measures blamed the very workers it had failed to keep safe. One Calgary Herald columnist described the announcement as “a doozy filled with whoppers.” The company said it had “progressed from encouraging personal face masks to providing them and making their use mandatory”—as if workers had chosen not to engage in health-saving measures. It also said it would work on continued “awareness” of social distancing, inside and outside work. “This includes,” it noted, “not sharing food during meals.” Cargill also stressed that it would discourage carpooling. “We put people first,” it added. “No employee should come to work if they are sick or they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.”

Even a casual reader did not have to squint to read between the lines: workers’ own carelessness and bad (cultural) habits, the company strongly implied, had caused the outbreak.

Combined with its other plant, in Guelph, Ontario, Cargill has cornered more than 50 percent of the beef-processing market in Canada, and as these and other processing plants shut down, the seemingly endless flow to the shelves trickled. But the situation at Cargill was only the beginning. All over North America, the people who pick Canada’s produce and slaughter its meat were not cared for, their already poor working conditions compounded by a virus that thrives in close quarters and unsanitary conditions. Last April, 184 employees at a Toronto industrial bakery that supplies goods to Walmart and Loblaws got sick. The company, FGF Brands, had encouraged its employees, many of whom are temporary foreign workers, to “get gritty” and make the most of the unprecedented time, during which it boosted hourly pay by a scant fifty cents. “How are you making the most of the disruption?” one company update asked workers. Like at Cargill, masks were reportedly scarce at FGF in the early days of the pandemic, and social distancing was difficult. But employees kept coming in, even as fear rushed through them, because they couldn’t afford not to.

These disease-ripe conditions were repeated at many farms. By early June, more than 420 migrant farm workers had tested positive for COVID-19 across six operations in Ontario. A subsequent report on behalf of over 1,000 migrant workers detailed inadequate food during their mandated quarantine upon arrival to Canada, even worse living conditions (often with one shower to share among upward of forty workers), and increased surveillance and intimidation. Again, people reported testing positive for COVID-19 but being told to keep working with others who’d also tested positive. As one Jamaican seasonal worker of eleven years said, “We’re treated like machines. We just want them to recognize that we’re still human.”

At the memorial, reporters asked Nguyen if he’d heard from Cargill. No, he said, no condolences had come from the company where Hiep had spent more than two decades of her life. A forty-minute car ride away, while Nguyen fought back tears, another worker settled into his wife’s spot on the line.

Excerpted from Women of the Pandemic by Lauren McKeon. Copyright © 2021 Lauren McKeon. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Lauren McKeon
Lauren McKeon is deputy editor of Reader's Digest Canada and the author of two books, F-Bomb and No More Nice Girls.