Calgary

85% of workers afraid to return as Alberta meat plant preps to reopen after COVID-19 outbreak, union says

The union representing workers at an Alberta meat-packing plant, the site of one of North America's largest COVID-19 outbreaks, continues to fight to prevent the facility from reopening on Monday as planned.

Union is fighting to keep the Cargill plant, site of Canada's largest coronavirus outbreak, closed

CBC News Network's Michael Serapio speaks to Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401. 6:27

The union representing workers at an Alberta meat-packing plant, the site of one of North America's largest COVID-19 outbreaks, continues to fight to prevent the facility from reopening on Monday as planned.

A total of 1,510 cases of COVID-19 in Alberta are now linked to the outbreak at the Cargill plant, located near High River, according to a spokesperson for Alberta Health.

Nearly half of the company's 2,000 staff, 917 workers, have tested positive. Cargill announced the plant would close on April 20, after a worker died of COVID-19.

"The plant shouldn't reopen unless it's safe," said Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401. "In recent days, large plants in the United States that have been closed for two weeks have reopened and the number of diagnoses doubled after some plants reopened."

The union surveyed more than 600 workers in four languages over the weekend; 85 per cent reported they are afraid to return to work and 80 per cent said they do not want the plant to reopen Monday.

UFCW is seeking a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and has also filed an unfair labour practice complaint against both the Cargill plant and the Government of Alberta.

The Alberta Labour Relations Board scheduled emergency proceedings over the weekend to address the matter, Hesse said.

Cargill has said it is responding to concerns raised by workers and will be providing personal protective equipment and changing policies to increase safety.

Cargill announced a temporary shutdown of its beef plant near High River on April 20, the day after a worker died due to COVID-19. The plant is set to reopen Monday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But Hesse said workers and the union haven't been involved in discussions with Cargill — he learned the plant was reopening through a news release. 

"No civilized country that has the rule of law puts people in this kind of jeopardy to put a hamburger on the table," he said. 

Employment lawyer Andrew Monkhouse said workers concerned about their safety have an uphill battle now that the plant has been cleared to reopen.

"Obviously we need to balance having food production but then also the care for the individual workers. The work has to go on. It's about finding a way ... that is as safe as possible while still getting the work done," he said.

"There are processes in place to be able to deal with these disagreements and hopefully to be able to get food production and labour production rolling again."

Employees at the plant have accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, no preventative inspection of the Cargill plant was done. A live video inspection by OHS, conducted after dozens at the plant were already sick, concluded the work site was safe to remain open. 

OHS is now investigating the plant, and Cargill said provincial health officials will be in attendance for Monday's reopening.

Hesse and Monkhouse both said if the legal challenge isn't successful and the plant reopens on Monday, workers still have the option to exercise their right to refuse unsafe work if necessary.

"The right of the individual workers to stop work when they feel it's dangerous, they're going to continue to have that right," Monkhouse said.

The plant processes about 4,500 head of cattle per day — more than one-third of Canada's beef-processing capacity.

With files from CBC News Network, Terri Trembath and Joel Dryden

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