Essential

Lyrics and music © Maria Dunn, 2020

In memory of Bui Thi Hiep and Benito Quesada, two workers at the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River, AB, and Armando Sallegue, the father of a Cargill worker. These three people died in April-May 2020 as a result of contracting COVID-19.

[Listen at Essential | Maria Dunn ]

**

A refugee, she settled in this country
There wasn’t a job she wouldn’t brave
Even the blood and guts of slaughter, she toughened to the task
Meat upon the table, money saved

She saw so many round her getting sick,
On top of back pain, carpal tunnel, muscles torn
If only options were as wide as her vision and her mind
Not narrow because she’s foreign born

Essential to her family, essential to her friends
Valued cause she’s strong, smart and kind
If she’s essential to the company, why did it take her death
Before they stopped the bloody line?

A stampede on the prairie, all could see it coming
All could feel the trembling earth below
But he was told to stand his ground, at elbows with his neighbours
No masks, no distance, nothing slowed

Scared for their families, anxiously they asked
Close the plant, damp the outbreak down
Tagged as troublemakers for raising the alarm
Heralded as heroes if they bowed

Essential to his family, essential to his friends
Valued cause he’s strong, smart and kind
If he’s essential to the country, why did it take his death
Before they stopped the bloody line?

Bureaucrats and politicians, keep their six feet space
We get ours six feet underground
Safety inspectors on remote, supervisors wearing masks
Assurances all ring hollow now

Today, a moment’s silence for our fellow workers
Isn’t silence the reason they are dead?
On this line we stand together, sombre with each other
Little pride in work now, only dread

Essential to our families, essential to our friends
Valued cause we’re strong, smart and kind
If we’re essential to this country, why does it take our deaths
Before you stop the bloody line?

**

Notes, revised April 27, 2021:

When the pandemic began, the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River, AB employed approximately 2,000 workers (about 1,000 per shift). The first COVID-19 case at Cargill was diagnosed April 6, 2020, three-and-a-half weeks after the Alberta government’s March 12th ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. By April 13, 38 Cargill workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Even with this outbreak, workers were expected to continue without adequate physical distancing at their workstations. The plant finally closed on April 20 (the day following Bui Thi Hiep’s death) for two weeks for the necessary safety overhaul. On April 22, Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw counted 440 COVID-19 cases among Cargill workers, with an additional 120 in the High River community. By May 21, more than 900 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in workers at Cargill. Most of these workers recovered.

The union representing the workers (UFCW Local 401) had asked for a safety meeting with Cargill on March 30, 2020 one week before the plant’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed. Cargill responded on April 1st that there was “limited availability” for a meeting. On April 12, 250 Filipino residents of High River signed a letter to the Mayor of High River asking him to close the plant: “We the workers and our families are worried and scared for the possibility that we might bring the virus with us at home,” the letter read. On April 18, Cargill management held a telephone town hall meeting with workers, Alberta agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen and chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw. Minister Dreeshen reassured workers that the plant had taken needed precautions and that their worksite was safe. UFCW Local 401 was not invited to participate in this town hall meeting. Cargill did not include worker representation in safety planning until May 2020, after ordered to by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, following an OHS investigation.

Benito Quesada became ill on April 9, 2020 and died in hospital on May 9, 2020 after weeks on a ventilator. Bui Thi Hiep became ill on April 16, 2020 and died in hospital on April 19, 2020. On April 23, Armando Sallegue, and his son, Cargill worker Arwyn Sallegue, were both diagnosed with COVID-19 and Armando, who had been visiting his son from the Philippines when the pandemic started, died in hospital on May 5, 2020.

Addendum:

On January 8, 2021, Benito’s daughter Ariana Quesada, who is 16 years old, made a formal complaint to the RCMP in High River, asking police to investigate potential criminal negligence in the death of her father.

Since May 2020 (when this song was written), two more people working in Alberta meatpacking, at Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer, died after a COVID outbreak there from November 2020 through February 2021. The plant was not shut down for a two-week break until mid-February 2021 after the death Jan. 28, 2021 of Darwin Doloque (35 years old). Henry De Leon (50 years old), who also worked at Olymel, died from COVID on Feb. 24, 2021. Some newspaper reports indicated a 3rd worker at Olymel died from COVID, but that person has not been publicly identified at the time of this writing (April 24, 2021).

This song is dedicated to the memory of these workers.

Sources:

CBC News, Calgary

Joel Dryden, April 19, 2020: What led to Alberta’s biggest outbreak? Cargill meat plant’s hundreds of COVID-19 cases. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/cargill-alberta-covid-19-deena-hinshaw-1.5537377

Joel Dryden & Sarah Rieger, May 6, 2020: Inside the slaughterhouse. https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/cargill-covid19-outbreak

Joel Dryden, May 9, 2020: Safety investigation of COVID-19 in Cargill slaughterhouse didn’t include worker representation, OHS finds. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/cargill-michael-hughes-ohs-occupational-
health-and-safety-1.5562931

Sarah Rieger, May 12, 2020: Benito Quesada, union shop steward, identified as 3rd death linked to Cargill COVID-19 outbreak. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/benito-quesada-cargill-covid-1.5566758

Joel Dryden, May 24, 2020: Mourning family of Cargill COVID-19 death feel left behind by company. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/benito-quesada-cargill-outbreak-coronavirus-ariana-1.5582205

Dave Seglins, Sarah Rieger, Inayat Singh, January 11, 2021: RCMP launch criminal probe into COVID-19 death tied to massive Alberta meat plant outbreak; Case marks Canada’s first known police investigation into workplace COVID-19 fatality. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/rcmp-criminal-investigation-cargill-covid-1.5867547

Joel Dryden, Sarah Rieger, Feb 6, 2021. New COVID-19 outbreak declared at Cargill meat plant in Alberta — site of Canada’s largest outbreak; Company is facing criminal investigation, class-action lawsuit for earlier outbreak. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/cargill-high-river-outbreak-1.5904444

Hannah Kost, March 3, 2021 [updated March 5]: Red Deer slaughterhouse linked to at least 500 COVID-19 cases to reopen Thursday
. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/red-deer-alberta-slaughterhouse-plant-union-employees-covid-19-outbreak-1.5934978

CBC News, Edmonton

Stephen David Cook, February 17, 2021: Red Deer at ‘critical stage’ as city deals with slaughterhouse outbreak of COVID-19. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/red-deer-at-critical-stage-as-city-deals-with-slaughterhouse-outbreak-of-covid-19-1.5916665

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell, March 30, 2021: Union group says documents show Alberta government prioritized Cargill plant operation over worker safety. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/union-group-says-documents-show-alberta-government-prioritized-cargill-plant-operation-over-worker-safety-1.5968428

Calgary Herald

Licia Corbella, Apr 30, 2020: With record COVID-19 outbreak, Cargill’s safety measures in question. https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/corbella-with-record-covid-19-outbreak-cargills-safety-measures-in-question

Licia Corbella, May 2, 2020: Cargill, JBS and province failed at keeping workers safe. https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/corbella-cargill-jbs-and-province-failed-at-keeping-workers-safe/

Licia Corbella, May 5, 2020: Cargill worker who died was jolly, sweet and unprotected. https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/corbella-cargill-worker-who-died-was-jolly-sweet-and-unprotected

Stephanie Babych, May 12 2020: ‘Quiet, gentle and humble’: Cargill workers mourn death of second co-worker in COVID-19 outbreak. https://calgaryherald.com/news/quiet-gentle-and-humble-cargill-workers-mourn-death-of-second-co-worker-in-covid-19-outbreak

Jason Herring, Feb 5, 2021: Worker dies in COVID outbreak at Red Deer Olymel pork plant; union calls for temporary shutdown. https://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/red-deer-olymel-slaughterhouse-stricken-by-growing-covid-19-outbreak

Global News

Jill Croteau, April 21, 2020: Coronavirus: Employee at Cargill plant died within days of feeling ill, union says another is critical. https://globalnews.ca/news/6850154/coronavirus-cargill-meat-plant-alberta-worker-outbreak/
Heide Pearson, February 16, 2021: ‘An eternal optimist’: Friends, family mourn victim of Olymel COVID-19 outbreak. https://globalnews.ca/news/7644245/coronavirus-alberta-olymel-outbreak-death-darwin-doloque

Allison Bench, March 3, 2021: New death connected to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak as Alberta Health removes previous fatality. https://globalnews.ca/news/7675266/olymel-covid-19-death-march-3/

Red Deer Advocate

Sean McIntosh, Mar. 7, 2021: Candlelight vigil held to remember those who have died due to Olymel COVID-19 outbreak. https://www.reddeeradvocate.com/news/candlelight-vigil-held-to-remember-those-who-have-died-due-to-olymel-covid-19-outbreak/

UFCW 401
President Thomas Hesse: Letter to Plant Manager Dale LaGrange, April 6, 2020. https://gounion.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/2020.04.06-Letter-to-Dale-LeGrange-CHR-COIVD-19-Confirmed-positive-test-letter-to-employer-002.pdf

Cargill
VP of Labor, Tanya Teeter, Cargill: Letter to UFCW401 President Thomas Hesse, March 23, 2020: https://gounion.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Summary-COVID-Actions-Cargill-March-23-Local-401-1.pdf