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Alberta Politics

Public inquiry needs to investigate what is happening at Alberta’s meat-packing plants after COVID-19 outbreaks

Before there were “I love Canadian Oil and Gas” posters in the window of the Premier’s Communications Office at the Alberta Legislature there were “I love Alberta beef” stickers on the bumpers of trucks and cars across Alberta.

Devin Dreeshen

Albertans rallied behind the wildly popular ‘I love Alberta Beef’ campaign during the Mad Cow disease outbreak that devastated the industry in the mid-2000s. Albertans flocked to grocery stores and butch shops to buy Alberta beef in support of the ranchers and cattlemen who raise the cattle.

I was reminded of the pro-Alberta beef campaign last week when the Cargill meat-packing plant reopened after weeks of closure after a COVID-19 outbreak. While Alberta’s Conservative politicians can be counted on to jump at the chance to demonstrate their love for Alberta beef, they have done little to show their support for the workers who work in Alberta’s largest meat-packing plants.

The Cargill plant has the dubious distinction of having the largest workplace COVID-19 outbreak in North America, with more than 900 workers infected and more than 500 community infections connected to the factory. Two workers – Hiep Bui and Benito Quesada and one family member of a worker – Armando Sallegue – have died from COVID-19.

An updated version of the well-known Alberta campaign.

Days before the plant was shut down, we are told that workers were reassured by Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw that the factory was safe, despite warnings from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents workers at the Cargill factory.

UFCW Local 401 President Tom Hesse wearing a facemask outside of the Cargill plant. (Source: Twitter)

UFCW 401 has taken legal action to try to stop the plant from reopening and is taking the issue to Alberta’s Labour Relations Board. The union also released a survey of the membership showing a large majority of workers do not feel safe working at the plant.

It was revealed last week that Cargill was not complying with Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety laws when the privately-owned American corporation failed to consult with workers at the plant. It was also revealed last month that the government OHS inspections were not conducted in person but over video chat.

According to a tweet from Alberta Senator Paula Simons today, 18 out of of the 37 Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors assigned to the Cargill plant have been infected by COVID-19.

The safety and health of workers at Cargill, and the JBS meat packing plant in Brooks, remains an ongoing concern. And workplace safety is especially important as restrictions are set to be lifted and business are expected to open tomorrow as part of the government’s “relaunch.”

Senator Paula Simons (source: Senate of Canada)

Citing concerns about infection rates, compliance with public health orders, and vague guidance provided by the government, the Alberta Federation of Labour is urging the government to delay the staged re-opening of the Alberta economy by at least one month.

“We need to use that time to develop and implement enforceable measures that will keep working Albertans safe as they return to their jobs,” said AFL President Gil McGowan in a press release today.

“If we don’t do more to address the government’s blind spot on workplace health and safety, more people will get infected, more people will die and we’ll increase the likelihood of a second wave of infection that will necessitate a return to economically damaging and social demanding lock-down measures,” McGowan said.

The safety of Albertans returning to work should be paramount. Whether they are nurses, physicians, healthcare workers, grocery store employees or truck drivers who have stayed on the job, or workers returning to their jobs at childcare centres, restaurants and hair salons, they should not only be provided with proper personal protective equipment but should be guaranteed paid sick leave and job protection.

Gil McGowan Alberta Federation of Labour
Gil McGowan

Premier Jason Kenney recently travelled to Fort McMurray to survey damage caused by spring flooding in northern Alberta’s oil capital, but he does not appear to have been spotted anywhere near the COVID-19 infected southern Albertan meat packing plants.

A centrepiece of Kenney’s first year in the Premier’s Officer has been his enthusiastic and aggressive support oil and gas workers, though his deference to Imperial Oil after a similar COVID-19 outbreak at its Kearl Lake work camp puts that into question. Another outbreak was declared today at the Horizon Oil Sands work camp operated by Canadian Natural Resources Limited. 

Dreeshen announced financial support for cattle farmers impacted by meat processing delays caused by the COVID-19 outbreak at then plants, but the government has been unwilling to criticize the large meat-packing corporations or workplace conditions that contributed to so many dying and ill workers.

At the very least, the Alberta government should launch a public inquiry chaired by a retired judge who can conduct a fulsome public investigation into what is going on at Alberta’s  meat packing plants. Anything less than a full public inquiry could let the corporations and politicians involved off the hook for the decisions they made that impacted workplace safety at Alberta’s meat-packing plants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albertans have shown their love for and take pride in Alberta beef. Now it’s time to demand our political leaders show their support for the workers who actually package it before we eat it.

2 replies on “Public inquiry needs to investigate what is happening at Alberta’s meat-packing plants after COVID-19 outbreaks”

Two points:
1) The provisions of the Occupational Health & Safety Code that mandate worker/union participation in workplace inspections were introduced during the 4-year NDP interregnum. Given the UCP hatred & contempt for the NDP and all its works, you can bet your bottom dollar that this government will neither honour nor enforce those provisions. The only reason they’re still in effect is that they never got around to it during last year’s “summer of repeal”.
2) Similarly, the UCP also holds worker organizations & unions in contempt, except those that are puppets of management like CLAC. So there’s no way in Hell they’ll engage UFCW in improving worker safety in these plants, any more than they engaged AUPE in bumping the pay of care workers in LTC or respected the role of the AMA as the bargaining agent of the province’s physicians.

I agree with your points, Dave.

When the outbreak began impacting Alberta, the government made a list of essential services. In retrospect, there are really two types ‘essential’ services. One is providing services that are essential for society i.e. people, to continue to function. Plumbers would be a good example. It is essential that we retain our ability to control sewage. As an extension, stores that supply the materials needed by plumbers would also be essential.

The other type of ‘essential’ service, though, would be essential for the continued functioning of the economy. Allowing oil sands mining to continue is an example of this.

Although it is essential that we maintain a food supply, given, (a) the existence of other protein choices like pork, poultry and plant-based proteins, (b) Alberta farmer’s (ie UCP base)reliance on the meat packing industry to prevent a backlog of animals and (c), our government’s ideology, the case can be made that the continued inclusion of beef processing plants as an essential service is a better fit under the essential for the economy category, rather than essential for society, now that we have seen how dangerous it is to work there.

I am especially concerned about how Devin Dreeshen held a virtual town hall assuring Cargill workers it was safe to go to work, when clearly it wasn’t. This speaks directly to your point about an inquiry. If such an inquiry were held, I would really like to know how much thought went into the decision to do this. It would appear there were two scenarios, and I really don’t know which one is worse:

1. Dreeshen gave the matter no thought at all. Alberta’s beef producers need the plant to operate to prevent a backlog of animals and a drop in the price of beef, and that was all that mattered or

2. Dreeshen had mathematical/epidemiological experts analyze the data, was told of the likely outcome, and decided 900 infected workers was an acceptable consequence to keep the plant open, especially since the mortality rate is so low.

I also wonder if Dreeshen considered how far south this episode could go. What if, instead of the 2 or 3 workers that did die, a few hundred workers died as a result of keeping the plant open? It isn’t hard to imagine a national outrage at his willingness to sacrifice so many workers for the beef industry. Given that between Cargill in High River and JBS in Brooks process something like 70% of Canada’s beef, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a boycott beef campaign resulting.

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