Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley speaks to UFCW 401 Local’s Rob Hellenius at the front entrance of the Oylmel meat processing plant, as workers returned Thursday. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley speaks to UFCW 401 Local’s Rob Hellenius at the front entrance of the Oylmel meat processing plant, as workers returned Thursday. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Notley calls for Olymel inquiry as plant reopens

Union also asks for further consideration to delay opening

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley is calling on the UCP to make an inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak at the Olymel meat processing plant.

Notley made the call Thursday as the plant announced a gradual reopening.

Alberta Health Services declared an outbreak at the plant in mid-November, but cases started to ramp up in late January.

There have been about 500 COVID-19 cases connected to the outbreak overall with four fatalities, including three workers who have died.

“We need to get to the bottom of who is responsible for these senseless, tragic deaths,” said Notley, who also visited workers outside the plant in Red Deer on Thursday.

“People with no choice but to continue working in unsafe conditions have gotten sick and died. We need to hold those responsible accountable and develop new practices to prevent tragedies like this in the future.”

The NDP also added they have learned that three employees from the plant are currently in the ICU.

Premier Jason Kenney’s office says Occupational Health and Safety officials have visited Olymel 14 times since November 17, when the outbreak was first declared.

“Following Olymel’s decision to gradually reopen, a joint inspection of the site and review of reopening plans took place with Olymel, AHS, UFCW, CFIA, and OHS. OHS will continue to monitor for compliance to ensure measures are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the statement read.

Kenney’s statement also pointed to several AHS recommendations for the plant to increase safety such as implementing capacity limits in lockers rooms and washrooms; removing reusable dishes in break rooms; enhanced cleaning/disinfecting schedules of washrooms, break rooms, locker rooms and more hand sanitizing stations throughout.

According to an NDP press release, the Olymel outbreak is now the deadliest linked to a meat-processing plant in Alberta during the ongoing pandemic.

The outbreak at High River’s Cargill plant last year saw two workers die and more than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 confirmed. That outbreak remains the largest in Canada since the start of the pandemic.

“Overall, while meat-packing plant (outbreaks) have occurred in several other provinces, only in Alberta have people died, with the number currently standing at six,” Notley said.

The Alberta Federation of Labour is echoing calls from the NDP for an inquiry into what happened with the Olymel outbreak. AFL president Gil McGowan said that a large number of workers have been hospitalized from the outbreak and more than half the workforce was infected at one time or another over the past two months.

“An inquiry into the government’s role at Olymel is warranted because they didn’t shut down the plant even after a worker died and more than half the workforce became infected. In fact, unlike their counterparts in other provinces, the Alberta government has never shut down a major workplace during the pandemic, even when outbreaks were out of control and workers were dying,” McGowan said.

“They have always left those decisions up to employers. This is clearly an ideological choice to put the interests of employers ahead of the interests of workers. And it’s a clear dereliction of the government’s duty to keep workers and the public safe.”

The NDP is also drafting a letter to Minister of Justice Kaycee Madu that demands he rule out legislative protection for Olymel, Cargill and JBS. A class-action lawsuit has already been launched against Cargill.

“The UCP wants to let these massive, profitable corporations wash their hands of these horrific incidents and, meanwhile, grieving families of lost loved ones will see nothing but more pain and suffering,” Notley said. “This government has a long track record of backing wealthy CEOs and screwing over workers. Enough is enough.”

In the U.S., 16 states have brought in legislation or immunity provisions to protect businesses and corporations from liability related to the pandemic.

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NDP leader Rachel Notley is calling on the UCP to make a public inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak at Olymel. (Facebook screenshot)

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