CARGILL, JBS AND PROVINCE FAILED AT KEEPING WORKERS, FAMILIES SAFE
42 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Alberta are linked to the two meat-packing plants
On April 6, the first confirmed case of COVID -19 was discovered at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River.
That’s when Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401, called on Cargill officials to close down the plant for two weeks. That would have given every worker the ability to self-isolate for two weeks with those in their household and get tested for the dreaded disease. It also would have given Cargill management time to have the plant completely sanitized and for social distancing changes to be implemented on the production lines.
I bet the company wishes it had listened to him now.
By April 16, there were 38 confirmed cases at the plant and by May 1 there were 921 cases — almost half of the entire workforce of 2,000 at Cargill and 23.5 per cent of the 5,573 total of cases in all of Alberta. An additional 576 COVID-19 cases are attributed to spread from Cargill workers, mostly to their family members.
The JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks has 390 confirmed cases with another 456 attributed to spread from the plant. When added together, 42 per cent of all of Alberta’s cases are linked to these two plants alone.
One worker from each plant has died. That’s a high price to pay for some steaks.
Gabriella fears that her 62-year-old mother could become the next victim to die from the Cargill COVID-19 outbreak.
Gabriella’s husband and 20-year-old son both work at the Cargill plant. They started feeling sick on April 13, Easter
Monday. They spread the disease to her, their 23-year-old daughter and her mom, who is struggling to breathe and has been in the ICU in a Calgary hospital for the past eight days.
“My mom could die from this and I’m not allowed to go and see her,” said a distraught Gabriella, who asked that her name be changed to protect the identities of her loved ones, who fear losing their jobs by her speaking out.
“Workers were telling supervisors they were too close together, that they needed masks but nothing happened until it was too late.”
Clearly, whatever actions were taken at Cargill to help protect their workers was an epic fail. The same applies to JBS, which is still operating. After two weeks of idling the plant, Cargill is expected to reopen with a single daily shift on Monday, something the UFCW Local 401 hopes to prevent after seeking a stopwork order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety and filing an unfair labour practice complaint, naming both Cargill and the province as respondents.
In response to a long list of specific questions, Cargill emailed the following statement:
“The safety of our employees is our top priority. We are engaging in good faith with the UFCW. We are eager to sit down and have a meaningful discussion about our shared focus — keeping our workers safe in the midst of this global pandemic. Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health & Safety reviewed the safety measures at our facility and support reopening. We care about our employees and are working around the clock to keep them safe, deliver food for local families and provide market access for ranchers.”
As Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in an interview Friday, “Alberta is not just an outlier in Canada but in all of North America,” with the largest workplace outbreak anywhere.
While the general population has to stand two metres apart from the person in front of them in the grocery store lineup and are limited to gatherings of no more than 15 people while maintaining social distancing, Cargill employees worked, in most circumstances, elbow to elbow doing repetitive, physically demanding manual labour for eight hours every day in rooms with as many as 1,000 people without any masks provided by the company until after the coronavirus had spread throughout the plant.
“I think what’s happened at these two plants is squarely to be laid at the feet of this cabinet,” said Notley, who prior to entering politics was a lawyer specializing in health and safety law.
“They have a culture of not listening to workers when it comes to workers’ health and safety and that is paired with a culture of seeing efforts of keeping workers safe as red tape and so they just have never taken it seriously,” she said.
“Whether you’re talking about the fact that it took two weeks for the concerns of workers to even be heard ... whether you’re talking about the fact that Cargill itself is now about to reopen without anyone having engaged with the workers through the union, it goes to show that this Alberta government doesn’t get it,” said Notley.
“They are working off of what is, for all intents and purposes, a 30-year-old culture in this province of not getting it. And that is why Alberta is an outlier in the country and on the continent with respect to stepping up to protect the lives and the health of these workers and their families.”
According to an April 30 bulletin released by Alberta Health Services, AHS inspectors and medical officers of health have been at the Cargill site regularly since April 8 to ensure additional measures are in place, including staff having their temperatures checked before each shift, face masks and other personal protective equipment finally being provided to employees and worn at all times, enhanced cleaning and staggered breaks.
The province has also “secured isolation accommodation for the placement of confirmed cases of COVID-19 for Cargill workers and close contacts for the purpose of self-isolation,” says the bulletin.
It’s very much all an example of the proverbial shutting the barn door after the cattle have bolted.
Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday that once the pandemic is largely behind us, the government “will launch a comprehensive study of what we did right and what didn’t go well and to get all the lessons learned from this whole experience on where there have been outbreaks, both in long-term care facilities as well as meat plants.
“We simply cannot shut down every food processing plant in Alberta or in Canada because that would create an obvious crisis in terms of food security,” he said.
Fair enough, but nobody — not even the union — is asking to shut down the plant. What they’re asking for is input from workers as well as earlier and better oversight of these businesses.
The Cargill employee who died on April 19 was a woman in her 60s. Her 67-year-old husband, also an employee with Cargill, was hospitalized from the coronavirus.
Marichu Antonio, executive director of Action Dignity, says the woman, originally from Vietnam, started feeling sick partway through her shift on April 9. She stayed home the next day as the entire plant was apparently shut down on Good Friday. She went to hospital on Saturday and was dead by Sunday.
“Her husband never got to say goodbye to her and now he’s so depressed,” said Antonio, whose group is helping him and many of the other infected employees’ families.
“These workers are being treated like they are not human beings,” said Antonio. “They’re being treated like they are materials that you can easily dispose of.”
Alberta is indeed an outlier in workplace safety and that’s a very bad thing.
Meat plant employees worked, in most circumstances, elbow to elbow doing repetitive, physically demanding manual labour for eight hours every day without any masks provided until after the coronavirus had spread throughout the plants.