Talks between Cargill Ltd. and the union representing its workers continued into the night Sunday as the company prepared to reopen its slaughterhouse in High River, Alta., the site of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak.
By Sunday, 935 employees at the facility that accounts for 36 per cent of the country’s beef production had tested positive. One employee has died, Bui Thi Hiep. Workers will take part in an online tribute to her on Monday.
Cargill announced last week it would resume operations Monday. The union, in response, sought a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and filed an unfair labour practice complaint, naming Cargill and the provincial government as respondents.
Alberta is home to Canada’s two largest COVID-19 outbreaks – the first tied to Cargill’s operations in High River and the second at JBS Canada’s beef-processing facility in Brooks.
A Globe and Mail investigation into the Cargill outbreak revealed an environment in which employees, who are largely immigrants and temporary foreign workers, said they felt pressured to continue working even as the COVID-19 numbers continued to rise. A number of employees said the company’s medical staff cleared them to continue working despite symptoms, positive COVID-19 test results, incomplete isolation periods and recent travel abroad. Employees said they were not provided with adequate personal protective equipment; masks were not required until April 16.
Meanwhile, 444 workers at JBS have been infected with the virus. Alberta counts 970 positive cases in and around Brooks. Not all of these cases are necessarily linked to JBS, according to Jessica Lucenko, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health.
JBS is running one shift, down from two. One JBS employee has died of COVID-19.
Neither the OHS nor Alberta Health Services issued stop-work orders to Cargill or to JBS. Other provinces have taken a different approach. In British Columbia, public-health authorities shut down several poultry processing plants, following investigations, amid concerns over outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers. Last week, Fraser Health ordered the Fraser Valley Specialty Poultry plant to remain closed until it can demonstrate “that they meet the parameters of the order, which includes addressing deficiencies at the site.”
The Alberta Labour Relations Board held negotiations all weekend, with representatives from Cargill, the union and the workers, to discuss health and safety issues at the plant, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers local 401, which represents the workers at the slaughterhouse.
Cargill did not provide an update when asked for comment.
In a statement to employees emailed just after midnight, the union said it was not satisfied with the outcome of the talks but advised employees who are healthy and cleared to return to work to report to their supervisors, and to refuse to work if they don’t feel safe.
“Unfortunately, the situation has not been resolved. At this moment, we have been unable to convince any government or legal authority to have the courage to step in and ensure the plant remains closed until safety is assured. Our lawyers are looking at new strategies,” the statement said, adding that an Alberta Labour Relations Board representative visited the plant Sunday.
William Johnson, chair of the Labour Relations Board, said negotiations started Saturday morning.
Asked whether they had to wrap up mediation before the plant could reopen, he said: “That’s independent. Right now, the company will decide if it opens.”
The union said a poll it conducted in recent days, sent to Cargill workers in four languages, showed 80 per cent of respondents oppose the May 4 reopening of the plant, while 85 per cent said they are afraid to return to work. (The survey was conducted Friday and Saturday and the results are based on about 650 responses).
“We opposed reopening an unsafe workplace and at this stage, as of this moment, the union is not convinced that it’s yet safe,” said Thomas Hesse, president of UFCW local 401, in an interview Sunday.
Ms. Hiep, the Cargill employee who died, was in her 60s and worked at the Alberta meat-packing plant for more than two decades. Her death, two weeks ago, has left her husband, Nguyen Nga, uncertain of his future.
"In this country, if you work they’ll think of you. When you no longer work, I’m not sure you’ll be remembered,” he said in an interview.
“There were just the two of us. She’s gone now and I am on my own,” the 67-year-old Mr. Nga said, speaking in Vietnamese. “I don’t know what I will do next. I’m at an older age. I’ll take each day as it comes. I have no plan.”
Ms. Hiep came from Ba Ria-Vung Tau, a coastal province in southern Vietnam. She and her husband arrived in Canada in 1992 and settled in the Calgary area. He said he worked for different employers while she was at Cargill the whole time.
“She was pleasant and easy-going, she had no problems," Mr. Nga said.
Numerous Cargill workers with whom the Globe has spoken to in the past week have said they’re concerned about returning to work, and concerned about paying the bills if they don’t.
“We don’t have a choice,” one worker said on Sunday. “If we decided not to go back, I don’t know what would [happen] to us.”
The employee and her husband both work at the plant, and COVID-19 infected them both. Her husband will return to his job May 6, but she has told her supervisor that she needs to stay home while some of her children recover from COVID-19. The supervisor, she said, was understanding.
“We have a lot of kids and we don’t want it again,” she said. The Globe is not revealing the identities of the employees it spoke with, because of their privacy concerns and because they fear retaliation from Cargill. Some employees said that while they’re fearful about returning to the plant, they will resume their jobs because they need the money and don’t want to jeopardize their employment with the company.
ActionDignity, an ethno-cultural community group, helped organized the commemoration for Ms. Hiep.
“She’s been known as ‘the worker who died,’" Marichu Antonio, executive director of ActionDignity, said. “We want to put the face to it and emphasize that these people are human beings. … Maybe it’s about time that we think about how we’re treating these workers.”
By several accounts, it was just a matter of a few days between when Ms. Hiep started to feel unwell and when she died.
Ms. Hiep, who spoke little English, worked on the fabrication side of the plant, where beef is cut, ground and packaged. Working in refrigerator-temperature conditions with her back to a fan, she was responsible for picking out the bones from the meat that gets processed into hamburgers.
“I’ve heard stories that she had to wear five layers of sweaters, eight hours a day,” Ms. Antonio said. “People need to understand that [the workers] are making sacrifices for us, behind the scenes. We need to appreciate them the way we appreciate doctors, nurses and truck drivers.”
The debate about the future of the plant rang hollow to Ms. Hiep’s widower.
‘’The illness happened," he said. "They could close or reopen, do I have a say?”
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