An Alberta union group says Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen and Labour Minister Jason Copping should be fired after internal government documents suggest production at Cargill’s High River meat packing plant was priortized over public safety.
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the NDP called for a public inquiry on Tuesday into the government’s handling of COVID outbreaks at meat packing plants.
The union and opposition said that the government misled Cargill workers last April by telling them the plant was safe despite rising COVID-19 infections.
The documents from the Agriculture and Forestry ministry were obtained by the AFL through freedom of information and show details of the Kenney government’s early response to COVID-19 in Alberta’s meatpacking plants.
The AFL says the documents show that Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw alerted Copping and Dreeshen that two federal meat inspectors contracted COVID-19 while working at Cargill. This demonstrated that transmission was happening in the plant.
But two hours after receiving Hinshaw’s email, Dreeshen and Copping hosted a virtual townhall meeting with Cargill workers, during which Dreeshen told the workers there was no evidence of workplace transmission and that their workplace was “safe,” says the AFL.
“The UCP’s early response to COVID-19 in Alberta’s meat processing plants was a dangerous brew of lies and incompetence,” says AFL president Gil McGowan. “The record of documents we’re releasing today clearly shows that the UCP was far more concerned about the meat being pumped out of those plants than the health and safety of the thousands of people who worked inside them.”
NDP leader Rachel Notley also criticized Dreeshen for not telling workers about infection transmission inside the plant.
“Devin Dreeshen told workers their workplace was safe when he was fully aware of further transmission occurring in the plant after the protective measures were put in place,” said Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
“Thousands of people got sick. Two workers died. This government was profoundly irresponsible with the lives of these workers and their right to know about safety risks in their workplace,” she said.
“It’s clear we need a full public inquiry into this outbreak and the outbreaks at meat plants across Alberta.”
The High River Cargill plant shut down for two weeks in April 2020 after the outbreak affected more than 1,000 workers and contributed to spread throughout High River and surrounding communities.
There were also COVID-19 outbreaks at the Olymel plant in Red Deer, JBS facility in Brooks, the Harmony Beef facility in Balzac, and another Cargill facility in Calgary.
Red Deer’s Olymel plant has had more than 500 cases and three workers have died. As of last Wednesday, only two cases were active and 515 had recovered.