Union leaders who witnessed a devastating COVID-19 outbreak at meat-packing facilities in Alberta are calling on a Brandon, Man., plant to shut down before its eight cases of the novel coronavirus become many more.
There’s no time to waste, said Alexander Shevalier, president of the Calgary and District Labour Council.
He’s speaking from experience: In Alberta, 900-plus employees at a Cargill meat-packing plant tested positive for the virus and two died, while 600 employees were infected at a JBS plant.
“How many infections before the company takes it seriously? How many infections before the Manitoba government takes this seriously? Is it 10? Is it 100? Is it 1,000?” Shevalier asked.
“I would suggest that at four [cases, as of Thursday], they can get a handle on it quite easily, and I would suggest at four, it should prompt some sort of trigger testing to make sure that this is dealt with.”
In Brandon, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, which represents 2,000 employees at the city’s Maple Leaf Foods plant, called on the company to temporarily cease production until at least Aug. 10, after four employees contracted the virus. On Friday, the union said another four workers had COVID-19, for a total of eight.
Outbreak rampant at Alberta meat processors
The union wants operations suspended until more information is known about the 60 outstanding tests among workers.
The concerns are heightened by what happened at slaughterhouses in Alberta.
It took weeks for Cargill to succumb to pressure and close its plant near High River, Alta., where an outbreak was on its way to becoming the largest tied to a single facility in North America.
Only days before the plant was temporarily shuttered on Apr. 20, a provincial inspection by video concluded the plant could keep operating, while politicians held a telephone town hall to assure staff that their workplace was safe.
Several workers accused their employer of disregarding physical distancing rules and trying to lure people back to work from self-isolation.
Meat-packing outbreaks aren’t exclusive to Alberta. Across the continent, these businesses have emerged as dangerous hot spots for COVID-19, linked partly to employees’ inability to stay apart on the processing line.
Shevalier urged officials in Manitoba to act before it’s too late.
“It’s better if you get a handle on the outbreak early, so that you don’t have to close a plant for two weeks and create a lot of anxiety in the community.”
Although four employees at the Brandon plant were confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, Manitoba’s top doctor said there’s no proof the virus had spread within the plant.
“If we see evidence of transmission within a facility, [that] would be concerning to us,” Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday.
Maple Leaf said it is reviewing the cases while each of the employees recovers at home. The company does not plan to cease production in the meantime.
“We will continue to operate our Brandon plant as long as we believe we can provide an environment that will protect the safety of our people while working,” the statement says.
Maple Leaf Foods said late Thursday that officials from Public Health, workplace safety and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspected the plant earlier in the day.
“As a result, Public Health and CFIA officials support our decision to continue operating.”
One worker, who wasn’t on the production line, tested positive late last week, and three more cases were announced Thursday. None of the eight cases are among workers on the production line, UFCW Local 832 said.
Though case numbers have been low, it doesn’t allay the fears of Thomas Hesse, the union head representing workers at the Cargill plant in southern Alberta.
“The Cargill circumstance also started with a handful of employees and early on, it was hard to sort out what the origin of the outbreak was and what its connection was to the community,” said the president of UFCW Local 401, which is embroiled in a legal fight stemming from the union’s efforts to prevent the plant from reopening.
From what he’s heard from his counterparts in Manitoba, Maple Leaf worked diligently to acquire personal protective equipment, stagger breaks for workers and mandate temperature checks, he said.
The company’s efforts should be applauded, Hesse said, but now, “Maple Leaf is at an intersection.” The right call is to shut down the plant temporarily, he said.
Experts are studying how meat-packing facilities became virus incubators. It’s believed the proximity of employees played a role, and maybe the ventilation systems designed to control odours and prevent meat from spoiling.
“We’re seeing outbreaks related to a very specific industry. We should look hard at those and learn from industries where we don’t see outbreaks,” said Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research Inc.
Hesse said he doesn’t want another community to go through what happened at Cargill.
He’s spoken to families who’ve lost loved ones because they went to work. He knows of workers, who didn’t exhibit symptoms, living with the guilt they spread the disease to someone else. He’s talked with a young mother who was forced to isolate in her garage, while her kids cried inside her house.
His message to Maple Leaf: “When you see a lot of [COVID-19 case] numbers, you’ve got to step back and you’ve got to do the right thing.”
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