Meat plant set to reopen amid protest


Meat plant in Alberta set to reopen, but there is one big problem

A meat plant in Alberta which presents more than one-third of beef processing market in Canada will reopen. After shutting down because nearly half of its employers tested positive for COVID-19, tomorrow it will be operational again. However, there is one big problem: a new survey indicates that nearly 85 per cent of employees are afraid to return to work.

All of this is happening at the High River Cargil plant. On a normal, pre-pandemic day, the plant would employ over 2000 people. But when 917 of them tested positive for the coronavirus, there was no choice but to close it. On April 20, the plant announced it would be shutting down. This followed the tragedy of one of its employees succumbing to COVID-19.

Workers union strikes back

However, when owners announced that the plan was to reopen on May 4, the workers union vigorously fought back the decision. The UFCW local president Thomas Hesse released a short statement on Friday. He said: “Food workers are afraid to go to work in the current environment. They lack the economic security they need to recover, and they are terrified of bringing this illness to their families and communities.”

The workers union sought a stop work order from the OHS. Moreover, the UFCW filed an Unfair Labour Practice Complaint, in which both Cargill and the Government of Alberta appear as respondents. In order to resolve this contentious issue, the Alberta Labour Relations Board will schedule emergency proceedings.

Hesse highlighted the sense of danger persistent among workers. In his words, “While they try to recover, their employer and government are telling them to get back to work. This recklessly endangers their lives and puts the interests of their bosses first”.

Survey highlights fear of returning to work

The union conducted an internal survey of its members on May 1 and 2. The results highlighted how 85 per cent of workers are afraid to return to work. 80 per cent of workers feel the plant should not reopen on May 4. At the forefront of the issue are questions regarding workers’ safety over productivity, according to Hesse. “Cargill and the Government of Alberta have ignored our calls for a worker-centred approach to ensuring the plant is safe. Alberta Health Services inspection reports have not been shared with us, and Occupational Health and Safety inspections have omitted the serious concerns we have raised”.

According to CBC News, the OHS is currently investigating the plant. Moreover, provincial health officials will be on-site for the reopening. Cargill also stated that each employee will be given protective equipment to ensure safety. But the workers union push for representation within the plant’s organisational structure cannot be bypassed. Hesse clarifies the union’s goal: “It is our objective and role to use every legal avenue available to us to keep the Cargill High River plant closed until we are able to ensure the safety of workers employed there and that their voices have been heard.”