Unions representing the workers and inspectors at Cargill Ltd.’s slaughterhouse in High River, Alta. – the site of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak – are calling on all levels of government to step in and force the plant to shut down again after it reopened on Monday.
Cargill, which idled the facility two weeks ago, reopened it after a weekend of negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The union has filed an unfair practice complaint to the Alberta Labour Relations Board, which has the power to issue a cease and desist order to stop a business from operating. Discussions about the complaint are still continuing and a hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Officials from two provincial bodies – Alberta Health Services (AHS), as well as Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) – were at the slaughterhouse Monday for the reopening of the harvest department, also known as the kill floor. They will be there Wednesday for the resumption of work in the fabrication department, where meat is processed and packaged. Partitions have been installed on the line and staff are now required to wear masks.
A total of 936 workers at the facility have so far tested positive; 810 have recovered. One employee has died, Bui Thi Hiep, a 67-year-old from Vietnam who leaves behind a husband, Nguyen Nga. While some of Ms. Hiep’s colleagues reported to work Monday, Mr. Nga paid tribute to her in a small memorial live-streamed from Calgary. "She was a wonderful wife; she spoiled me,” Mr. Nga, wearing a yellow surgical mask, said through an interpreter. “I am so, so sad.”
The High River plant has become a flashpoint for essential workers, many of them newcomers to Canada, who do their jobs out of the spotlight. Slaughterhouse workers are sounding the alarm on tight working quarters and inadequate personal protective equipment.
A number of Cargill employees told The Globe and Mail that they felt blamed for the outbreak after the company and provincial officials said carpooling and multifamily households caused the rapid rise in cases – not conditions at the plant.
Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, told reporters Monday that the workers should not be disparaged and that the province must provide support, including accommodations, to help people isolate. “These workers have suffered and I think that it is really important to not stigmatize them,” she said. “It is not their fault."
Cargill employees also told The Globe that they are fearful to return to work this week, but need the money; some said there have been payroll issues. Community groups are providing workers with income supports and food hampers, and the union representing slaughterhouse inspectors wants Ottawa to “get off the sidelines” and shut down the plant.
At his daily briefing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has a duty to ensure food safety, it is the provinces that have jurisdiction over workplace safety. In Alberta, AHS and OHS both have the authority to issue stop-work orders. No such order has been issued for the High River plant – or for JBS Canada’s Brooks, Alta., beef facility, which is the site of the country’s second-largest outbreak, with 469 cases. JBS is running one shift, down from two; one employee has died of COVID-19.
Dr. Hinshaw said Alberta has learned from its experience with Cargill and is taking a more aggressive approach at slaughterhouses that report even one or two COVID-19 cases, pointing to two poultry-processing facilities in the province. Measures include swift and widespread testing, as well as strict isolation protocols. “We’ve seen remarkable success,” she said.
Other provinces have gone a step further. In British Columbia, public-health authorities shut down several poultry processing plants hit by COVID-19. The union representing federal inspectors, who must be on site whenever slaughter activities are taking place, is calling on the CFIA to standardize the protocols for plants with infected workers.
Fabian Murphy, the national president of the Syndicat Agriculture Union, wants the agency to withdraw its inspection services from Cargill – a move that would force a shutdown.
“We want the CFIA to step up and be the regulator that’s calling the shots,” Mr. Murphy said on Monday. “Leaving it to the companies and provincial authorities is not working from a safety or public health point of view.”
Eighteen of the 55 or so CFIA employees assigned to the Cargill plant have tested positive for COVID-19. The CFIA said in an e-mail that local public-health authorities make decisions around worker safety in food-processing establishments.
On the weekend, The Globe published an investigation into the Cargill outbreak, revealing an environment in which employees, who are largely immigrants and temporary foreign workers, said they felt pressured to continue working. 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.
Workers expressed confusion about compensation, with some saying they have not received the amounts they had expected, including for time in isolation. The union said payroll issues are “very widespread.” Cargill said it is not aware of any problems with compensation.
In the course of just two days late last week, roughly 50 Cargill workers applied for income support through a community group; others have asked for food hampers. “There’s a huge irony there,” said Kelly Ernst, the vice-president of vulnerable populations at the Calgary-based Centre for Newcomers, which is assessing the applications under its emergency income program. “These people are needing food hampers while producing food for the Canadian population.”
Thomas Hesse, the president of UFCW Local 401, said transparency and sharing information remain key sticking points in the labour negotiations. “And just simply caring,” he added. Mr. Hesse attended the memorial for Ms. Hiep, where Mr. Nga spoke of their life together.
The pair escaped Vietnam on the same boat and landed in the same refugee camp. They wed in Canada in 1993. Mr. Nga said he could not be with Ms. Hiep when she died because of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. “I want to find a way to join my wife,” he said.
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.