The union representing 1,400 Red Deer Olymel workers has renewed calls for a temporary plant shutdown after more than 500 workers at a Cargill meat plant in High River got sick from COVID-19 and one died.
Cargill announced on Monday it was temporarily shutting down its plant, but United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said it was “obviously too little too late.
“Cargill and the government of Alberta ignored UFCW Local 401’s request to shut the plant to keep employees safe and told employees it was safe to go to work,” said Hesse this week.
Workers at Alberta’s meat plants have been told they are essential, “but they have not adequately protected workers, and now our members are sick and dying,” said Hesse.
The JBS meat packing plant in Brooks has recorded nearly 80 COVID-19 cases.
Hesse said the union is encouraging all of its workers to learn about their right to refuse dangerous work.
“The problems we have raised are not seen only at Cargill. JBS in Brooks is just as bad, and we fear it may be worse. We have also asked for preventative measures at Olymel in Red Deer.”
Olymel said last week it had taken a series of steps to protect workers, including setting up separation panels and giving visors and masks to employees whose jobs did not allow for physical distancing.
Trailers have been set up to allow for more space between workers on breaks.
Shifts have also been staggered to reduce the workforce to 25 per cent at any given time and each employee has to fill out a health questionnaire before starting their shift.
Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault said the company is “still applying all the measures against the spread of coronavirus very rigorously.”
There are no plans to change protocols or to temporarily shut down because of the Cargill situation. No cases of COVID-19 have been detected in Olymel’s work force.
The Quebec-based company reopened a meat packing plant in that province after it was closed for two weeks when COVID-19 was detected. Eventually, 125 workers were infected.
The United Food and Commercial Workers has also been critical of Occupational Health and Safety. It inspected the High River plant “virtually,” using video recorded of the operations. An inspector did not go to the plant in person.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley criticized Premier Jason Kenney’s government for not acting on calls from her caucus and the union two weeks ago to temporarily shut down the Cargill plant and conduct a safety review.
“Now we see the consequences of failing to act,” said Notley.
Notley called for temporary shutdowns of JBS and Red Deer’s Olymel plant to prevent outbreaks.
— With files from The Canadian Press