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

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION - LICIA CORBELLA Licia Corbella is a Postmedia colum­nist in Cal­gary. lcor­bella@postmedia.com

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.

JBS

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.

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