Concerned about the safety and well being of employees at a meat plant in High River, Alta., the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 401 has launched legal action to stop the planned opening of the Cargill meat packing facility.
The UFCW is asking that a stop-work order be issued by Occupational Health and Safety for the plant, which is set to re-open on Monday after a 14-day temporary closure, and filed an unfair labour practice complaint.
The Cargill plant has been the site of the biggest coronavirus outbreak in Alberta, with 921 cases linked to the facility confirmed as of Friday.
Both Cargill and the Alberta government are named as respondents in the filings.
“Cargill and the government of Alberta have ignored our calls for a worker-centred approach to ensuring the plant is safe,” UFCW president Thomas Hesse said in a news release.
“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.”
Hesse wrote that the facility workers are afraid to return to work, adding they’re also facing economic uncertainty and fears about bringing the virus into their homes and communities.
“While they try to recover, their employer and government are telling them to get back to work,” he said. “This recklessly endangers their lives and puts the interests of their bosses first.”
Hesse said the decision to open the plant is “nothing less than sheer recklessness.”
“COVID-19 is a new and deadly virus affecting every person in the world. We are called upon to forget about politics and all of our traditional ways of thinking and to save lives,” Hesse said.
“There is no vaccine, no treatment, and no cure. Why are workers expected to work without all necessary protections in this environment?”
Cargill said in a statement on Friday that “safety of our employees is our top priority.”
“We are engaging in good faith with the UFCW. We are eager to sit down and have a meaningful discussion about our shared focus – keeping our workers safe in the midst of this global pandemic,” a spokesperson for the company said.
“Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety reviewed the safety measures at our facility and support reopening. We care about our employees and are working around the clock to keep them safe, deliver food for local families and provide market access for ranchers.”
In an emailed statement, spokesperson for the Department of Labour and Immigration Adrienne South said a union representative was part of the OHS inspection.
“The matter is before the Alberta Labour Relations Board, and is between the employer and union,” South said.
“The government is taking its advice and direction from health and safety experts, including chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.”
In a bulletin regarding the reopening of the Cargill plant issued on Thursday, the government said “public health officials, Occupational Health and Safety, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and others have all worked to ensure safety precautions were implemented at the facility, identify and support those with COVID-19 and help limit the spread to other workers.”
The government said as of Thursday, more than 600 of those who contracted the virus had recovered.
On-site inspections were done at the plant on April 28 and 29, the government said, and officials will be there on Monday when the plant opens.
Along with the inspections, OHS is also investigating the circumstances of possible exposure of workers.
“This will also include an investigation of any potential non-compliance that may have affected the health and safety of workers at the facility,” the government said.