Alberta meat-processing workers need more protection during COVID-19 pandemic, union says

The largest private-sector union in Western Canada is calling for stronger measures to prevent more COVID-19 outbreaks at Alberta’s meat processing plants. 

The measures include temporarily closing the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer, where there has yet to be a confirmed case of the disease among the roughly 1,500 employees.

​The call comes after the Cargill plant near High River temporarily ceased operations following the most serious COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

As of Thursday, 480 Cargill employees have tested positive for the virus, as have 124 workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Brooks.

The JBS facility reduced staffing to one shift due to “increased absenteeism,” but is another plant the United Food and Commercial Workers 401 would like to see temporarily closed.

Late last month, Olymel shut down one of its plants in Quebec for two weeks after nine workers became infected with the illness. 

Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, tells CBC News that once someone is sick with the disease, it’s too late.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Hesse said in a phone call from his Calgary office on Wednesday afternoon.

‘A cleansing of the plant’

The union wants “essentially for the pause button to be hit, for workers to be able to go home and self-isolate for 14 days,” he said. “Sort of a cleansing, as it were — a cleansing of the plant.”

Just after the Quebec plant closed, Hesse began to worry about three large plants in Alberta: JBS, Cargill and Olymel.

“What you have to remember about these plants, they all share a certain characteristic and that is they are built around social proximity, not social distancing,” he said.

Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW Local 401, wants “the pause button to be hit” at Olymel. (Submitted by UFCW 401)

Hesse describes the work as elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder with crowded lunchrooms, washrooms and locker rooms.

“Narrow hallways; hundreds of workers wielding knives; wet, cold conditions,” he said. “It’s hard, hard work in very close quarters.”

Despite the union’s concerns, a spokesperson for Olymel tells CBC News the company has no plan to close its Red Deer plant.

Workers complying, company says

“So far, there is no COVID case,” Richard Vigneault said Wednesday in a phone interview from Quebec where the company is based.

“There have been a lot of measures implemented to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and everybody is complying with those measures.”

Vigneault said additional people have been brought in for surveillance including a medical expert who has been hired as a consultant. He provided the CBC with a list of 16 anti-COVID measures that the company has taken at the plant.

The union believes companies policing themselves is part of the problem.

Hesse wants an independent party to be making the decisions when it comes to the well being of the union’s members.

He’s not happy with Alberta Occupational Health and Safety’s handling of a recent inspection at Cargill.

“The way they toured a plant with hundreds of thousands of square feet, a complex plant, was through a FaceTime tour,” Hesse said.

“It’s very, very disturbing to us that an Occupational Health and Safety officer doesn’t want to go into the plant themselves and yet they’re prepared to conclude that the plant is safe.”

He added that workers and Albertans have lost faith in the agency and someone else, like a judge, should step in.

“We need some sort of body to do it that isn’t political,” he said. “Some sort of body to do it that doesn’t have an economic interest in the outcome like the employers do.”

Hesse said basic measures just aren’t adequate.

“I’m pretty tired of everyone saying wash your hands, maintain appropriate social distancing, here’s a mask, things like that,” he said. “Those are simplistic and this is a lot more complicated than that.”

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