Manitoba processing plant with COVID-19 should learn from Alberta facilities and shut down, union leaders urge

By | August 7, 2020

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 four 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] 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 processor, are calling on the company to temporarily cease production until at least Aug. 10, after four employees contracted the virus.

Outbreak rampant at Alberta meat processors

The union is asking to suspend operations until more information is known about the 60 outstanding tests among workers.

Their concerns are heightened by what happened at slaughterhouses to the west of them.

It took weeks for Cargill to succumb to pressure and close its plant near High River, Alta., but it was already well on its way to becoming the largest outbreak 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.

Cargill, an Alberta meat-packing plant, reopened in May after more than 900 employees contracted COVID-19. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But meat-packing outbreaks aren’t exclusive to Alberta. Across the continent, these businesses have emerged as dangerous hot spots for COVID-19, linked partially to employees’ inability to stay apart while standing shoulder to shoulder 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 are confirmed COVID-19 cases, Manitoba’s top doctor said Thursday there’s no evidence the virus has spread within the plant. 

“If we see evidence of transmission within a facility, [that] would be concerning to us,” Dr. Brent Roussin said.

Maple Leaf said it is reviewing the four 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. 

One worker, who wasn’t on the production line, tested positive late last week and the three cases from Wednesday aren’t involved in production, UFCW Local 832 said.

Though the case numbers are low, it doesn’t allay the fears of Thomas Hesse, the union head representing workers at the Cargill plant in southern Alberta.

Union members in High River, Alta., protested the reopening of the Cargill meat-packing plant in May after a COVID-19 outbreak. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“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.

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 have 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 a loved one 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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