Union members gathered outside Olymel early Wednesday morning in support of workers at the plant that has been temporarily closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re here in solidarity. We’re demanding that no Alberta workplace that is unsafe be allowed to operate,” said Thomas Hesse, president of Local 401 with the United Food and Commercial Workers, outside Olymel where about two dozen union members waived flags and walked in the cold.
He said the union was able to convince Olymel to close the plant and workers are pleased.
“They just want to be safe.”
Olymel announced the closure on Monday to deal with a resurgence of positive cases of COVID-19 among plant employees.
More than 300 COVID-19 cases are linked to the Red Deer plant. The number of cases has been climbing at the facility since Jan. 20 and the outbreak has led to one death.
Hesse said over 85 per cent of workers have been scared to go to work, and over 90 per cent told the union they wanted the plant shut down.
“That’s very bold for people to say — I’ll give up my job.”
He said the law says it’s the employer’s obligation to keep workers safe, but Olymel has been ramping up slaughtering and processing to 10,000 hogs a day from 7,000.
“We don’t believe they’ve adjusted the environment to tolerate that kind of capacity. We’re all worried about new variants. The disease can be considerably more contagious and a lot of these food processing plants have really become Alberta’s shame.”
Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault told the Advocate recently that the plant has been operating at less than half capacity for the last two weeks in response to the outbreak.
Hesse said the problem is the public health system has not been interviewing workers.
“Workers are witnesses to what’s happening at the plant. Our entire legal system is based on witness evidence, and public health officials did not interview witnesses.”
More than 1,800 unionized workers are employed at the Red Deer pork processing plant and the bottom line is they need to be safe, Hesse said.
“The way you prevent this disease is through social distancing. And how do you achieve that in certain environments like large grocery stores, food processing plants? These places need to be regulated and they need to be regulated properly.
“We’re really hoping a fresh perspective can be brought to Alberta’s food processing plants and that public health officials and employers will start listening to their employees about what really happens in the workplace.”