‘Numb and very lost’: Meat plant reopens as memorial held for Cargill worker

‘Numb and very lost’: Meat plant reopens as memorial held for Cargill worker

HIGH RIVER, Alta. — The husband of a meat-packing worker who died last month remembered her as “a wonderful wife” who indulged him as he expressed his grief at a memorial Monday, the same day the plant in southern Alberta reopened after a two-week shutdown forced by a COVID-19 outbreak.

Hiep Bui, who was 67, worked at the Cargill slaughterhouse for 23 years and was responsible for picking out beef bones from hamburger meat. She became ill on her shift on a Friday, was hospitalized the next day and died on the Sunday.

“Initially she thought maybe it was a flu or a cold of some sort, (but) it was announced she truly had COVID-19. That was a very, very sad moment,” her husband, Nga Nguyen, said through an interpreter at the memorial in Calgary, 15 days after Bui died.

“I hope that Cargill will be able to control the safety at the Cargill plant so that there will not be any more victims like my wife.”

The beef-packing plant near High River, south of Calgary, closed temporarily on April 20 as cases of the illness spiked. More than 900 of 2,000 workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Nguyen and his wife were refugees from the Vietnam War and married in 1993.

“We both escaped Vietnam on the same boat and we landed in the same refugee camp. She got accepted (to Canada) first, a year before I was, and then, of course, we kept communicating, and we met here again and we got married,” he said.

“She was a wonderful wife. She spoiled me. She never argued with me. Whenever I wanted something she would buy it at all costs.”

Nguyen said the couple had lots of friends. The didn’t have any children.

He’s not sure how he will go on.

“I’m still numb and very lost. I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“I just want to end my life. I want to find a way to join my wife.”

Nguyen said he hasn’t received any expression of condolences from Cargill.

As the first shift at the reopened plant began early Monday, a long line of cars and buses waited to enter the slaughterhouse.

The union that represents Cargill workers held a rally on the edge of the property and handed out black face masks emblazoned with “Safety First” to anyone who needed them.

“We have hundreds here for anyone who wants them,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.

“People are scared. They’re not coming to work. It’s a problem for everyone.”

The plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle a day — more than one-third of Canada’s beef-packing capacity.

The union, arguing conditions are unsafe for workers, is seeking a stop-work order at Cargill. Hearings before the Labour Relations Board began on the weekend and were continuing.

“We’d like to see proper personal protection equipment. We’d like to see daily, ongoing health and safety meetings,” said Hesse. “These places are hundreds of thousands of square feet with all sorts of nooks and crannies, and the company really needs to respect the voice of the workers.”

A statement from Cargill said all employees who are “healthy and eligible to work” were asked to report for work at the plant’s two shifts.

“According to health officials, the majority of our employees remain healthy or have recovered. We are grateful for our workers’ dedication and resilience as our plant and community walks through this heart-wrenching pandemic,” said the statement.

“Alberta Health Services will be on-site and we will conduct our ongoing screening to safeguard employees and ensure no one exhibiting symptoms enters the facility.”

Cargill is limiting plant access to no more than two people per car, one in the front and one in the back. It is also providing buses with protective barriers to reduce the need for carpooling.

Barriers have also been added in bathrooms and lockers have been reassigned to allow for enough spacing.

Hesse said it is important that Cargill listen to the concerns of its workers.

“These workers will not be invisible and this issue will not be invisible. Cargill is really bringing a lot of shame to the province of Alberta and Albertans aren’t going to tolerate it.”

Hesse attended Bui’s memorial and handed Nguyen an envelope stuffed with cash from her fellow employees.

“It’s very sad for me. This should not have happened,” Hesse said.

“It’s a human tragedy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2020

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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