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Union group says documents show Alberta government prioritized Cargill plant operation over worker safety

Internal Alberta Agriculture documents show the UCP government and health officials prioritized the continued operation of the Cargill meat-packing plant over worker safety even as infection rates skyrocketed, a union group and an academic expert say.

AFL wants public inquiry into government's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-packing plants

Critics say Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen and other government officials misled Cargill workers about the safety of the plant during a massive COVID-19 outbreak. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Internal Alberta Agriculture documents show the UCP government and health officials prioritized the continued operation of the Cargill meat-packing plant over worker safety even as infection rates skyrocketed, a union group and an academic expert say. 

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) obtained hundreds of pages of documents through freedom of information. CBC News also obtained an audio recording of an April 18, 2020 town hall meeting between government officials and Cargill workers.

The documents include correspondence involving senior health officials, including chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, and emails from Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen's office, which critics say advanced a narrative that minimized the risk of infection within the Cargill plant. 

"If you look at this evidence in its totality, it is clear that keeping the plant open is more important than worker safety," said Sean Tucker, a University of Regina professor of occupational health and safety, who reviewed the documents.

"I think there is enough evidence to show that there was a regulatory breakdown in the case of Cargill's High River, Alberta plant, that people knew about problems but were not empowered to share them with workers."

Both Tucker and AFL president Gil McGowan said the government misled Cargill workers by telling them at the April 18 town hall meeting that the plant was safe.

"Many had already been hospitalized by that point," McGowan said in an interview. "And so the agriculture minister convened a town hall ostensibly to reassure them."

"(Dreeshen) told them that the plant was safe. But what the documents that we obtained showed very clearly is that the minister himself, even while he was saying these things to the workers to reassure them, he knew that the plant was not safe," McGowan said.

Dreeshen did not respond to an interview request from CBC News.

McGowan and Tucker referenced an email sent by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health to several senior Alberta Health officials about two hours before the town hall meeting last April. 

Hinshaw's email was subsequently forwarded to several senior Agriculture officials, including the deputy minister.

"FYI, I'm just hearing from the local (medical officers of health) that it seems there has been a case of transmission in the Cargill plant between two CFIA [Canadian Food Inspection Agency] workers since the protective measures at the plant were put in place," Hinshaw wrote.

"This could be an issue at the call today. Not sure how/whether it will come up."

It didn't.

Neither Hinshaw nor the other health officials on the call disclosed this information at the virtual town hall. The documents show Dreeshen and Labour Minister Jason Copping, were supposed to be briefed before the town hall but also did not mention it.

Officials stressed plant was safe

Tucker said it is "quite troubling" that this information was kept from workers while officials instead emphasized the role that carpooling and household transmission played in the number of infections linked to Cargill, which at that point had spiked to 358 cases.

If Hinshaw and the government ministers "are taking worker safety seriously, as they say they are, there is no question in my mind that they have to share this," Tucker said. 

"They have to disclose that there has been transmission in the plant after the protective measures have been put in place."

University of Regina professor Sean Tucker, who specializes in occupational health and safety, said Hinshaw and other officials were not transparent with Cargill workers about the risk of COVID-19 transmission within the plant. (CBC)

The Agriculture Union, which represents CFIA inspectors, confirmed to CBC News that two of its inspectors at Cargill tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before April 18.

Union president Milton Dyck said there was no conclusive evidence about where the two employees contracted the virus "but the suspicion is, because of the enormous breakout in the plant, that it was at the plant."

Tucker listened to a recording of the town hall obtained by CBC News. He said the officials at the meeting "seem to fail to hear the complaints from workers, that the [safety] measures have not been implemented effectively and that there is pressure to return to work when they are ill." 

Hinshaw declined an interview request. In a statement, an Alberta Health spokesperson said, "any report that transmission occurred between workers at some point, including while they were outside of the plant, would be assessed to determine if it was accurate and, if so, whether any additional changes to outbreak protocols were needed to protect everyone involved."

The spokesperson said information that would identify an individual would never be shared publicly. 

Tucker said if it was truly the case, as officials claimed, that Cargill workers were largely infected outside the plant, they would be ineligible for Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) coverage.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents Cargill employees, said the WCB has so far accepted the claims of nearly 400 Cargill workers. 

The Alberta WCB has so far accepted claims from more than 1,500 meat-packing plant employees.

Thomas Hesse is president of the Local 401 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents Cargill employees. He said the failure of Hinshaw and government officials to disclose the risks within the plant was part of a pattern of behaviour the union observed during the Cargill outbreak.

"It is not just negligence; it is worse than negligence," Hesse said. "It is an intentional omission of the truth for vulnerable workers."

Responsibility for worker safety offloaded: expert

Alberta Labour is responsible for enforcing the province's occupational health and safety laws in meat-packing plants. Labour minister Jason Copping participated in the April 18 town hall meeting.

Tucker said Copping essentially offloaded responsibility for the workers' safety to provincial and federal health authorities, when it was his job to regulate the employer and ensure safety measures were enforced. 

"It is almost absolving the employer from responsibility here," Tucker said. "It appears he delegated a significant amount of his authority to health officials."

Copping declined an interview request. In a statement, his spokesperson said the government followed expert advice from health officials.

"At no time did Alberta Health's expert officials recommend the closure of meat plants," the statement said.

Last spring, Cargill's plant near High River became the largest single coronavirus outbreak in North America. The company took measures to reduce the spread, including reducing shifts and implementing physical distancing, but some employees told CBC News the plant was still too crowded. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

At the town hall, Dreeshen, Hinshaw, and others stressed the plant was safe and downplayed the risk of transmission within it.

"Everything that needs to be done both to keep people safe and the food supply maintained is being done to you and everyone working at Cargill today who are still hard at work," Dreeshen told the workers.

Two days later on April 20, Cargill announced it would temporarily close the plant; there were now 484 cases linked to the outbreak and one worker, 67-year-old Hiep Bui, had died.

Despite measures Cargill said it had taken to reduce the spread, including reducing shifts and implementing physical distancing, some plant employees told CBC News about "elbow-to-elbow" working conditions in a plant they said still was simply too crowded.

Plant infection risk minimized 

But the internal Alberta Agriculture documents show that on that same day — April 20 — Dreeshen added two lines to a ministry "narrative" about the state of the province's meat processing facilities that minimized any role the conditions at the Cargill plant might have had in the growing outbreak.

"There are unique external circumstances around the Cargill plant that facilitated a larger outbreak, including housing and transportation, which significantly contributed to the rapid spread in that area," Dreeshen wrote.

"The High River COVID-19 cases are not due [to] conditions in the plant, which are being closely supervised by Alberta Health Services," the minister added.

"That is an outrageous statement to me; it is false," Tucker said. "Because it contradicts information that Dr. Hinshaw shared with staff in the ministries of agriculture and labour on April 18th," he said.

"It also contradicts what the workers were saying before, during and after the town hall," he added later.

Dreeshen's press secretary provided a statement to CBC News that did not address the minister's claim in the narrative that the virus was not spread in the plant. 

Instead, the statement said Dreeshen "was re-emphasizing previous public comments from Dr. Hinshaw about the complex nature of transmissions surrounding meat plants, including at-home transmission amongst employees."

The Cargill plant reopened after a two-week shutdown. The case count kept climbing. At least 950 staff at the facility — nearly half its workforce — tested positive by early May, with more than 1,500 cases eventually linked to the outbreak.

Two more people died: Armando Sallegue, the 71-year-old father of a plant worker, and 51-year-old union shop steward Benito Quesada. The RCMP are investigating Quesada's death.

AFL President Gil McGowan says there must be a public inquiry into the provincial government's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packing plants. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Both McGowan and Tucker said there needs to be a public inquiry, especially because Cargill employees — primarily immigrants or temporary foreign workers — were particularly vulnerable. 

"It is clear from the public record, it is clear from these documents that the Kenney government here in Alberta grossly mishandled workplace health and safety at meat-packing plants," McGowan said.

The call for a public inquiry was echoed Tuesday by union president Hesse as well as NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who said Cargill workers deserved better.

"This government was profoundly irresponsible and dismissive of their lives, and their right to be treated with dignity and to be protected," Notley said.

If you have information about this story, or for another story, contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Former investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell were reporters with CBC Investigates, the investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. They left CBC in 2021. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta.

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