Employees at the Maple Lodge Farms poultry plant in Brampton, Ont., where a worker has died from COVID-19 are speaking out about alleged unsafe working conditions amid a novel coronavirus outbreak that has sickened at least two dozen workers.
Three employees allege they are being limited to one or two protective masks per shift and the plant is failing to take proper physical distancing measures in common areas like the change rooms and lunch rooms.
The union representing the plant’s workers also says it is aware of at least eight formal complaints that have prompted provincial inspections in recent weeks.
“I would say it’s as close to working at a sweatshop as you can get,” said an employee.
The company, which describes itself as Canada’s largest chicken processor, said it was working with public health and labour officials to ensure that it is taking appropriate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect employees.
But employees who spoke to Global News said they were still scared about what they were seeing on the job.
One employee, who worked overnight into Friday morning, said that they saw 50 employees in the cafeteria during one of their breaks without proper physical distancing. The worker added that they didn’t see anyone coming in to clean up common areas of the cafeteria as employees came and left.
Workers also say they were incentivized to come into the plant in April as the coronavirus spread with $40 gift cards to Food Basics or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The company and union have said there are at least 25 confirmed cases.
It is not clear whether the employee who died had contracted the virus at the plant or from elsewhere.
All three employees who spoke to Global News said that Maple Lodge wasn’t providing them with enough protective equipment needed for their shifts.
Two employees who work in the receiving area handling live chickens said that before the pandemic, it was normal for workers to go through at least four N95 respirators a shift as face masks often become caked with blood or chicken feces.
The employee, who worked in the same area where another person died this week from COVID-19, said he is terrified to go back to work.
“I’m actually quite scared. I just don’t want to go back to work until this is over,” they said.
Maple Lodge Farms told Global News that each time an employee tested positive for COVID-19, they informed Peel Public Health and adopted preventive measures.
“We have worked with Public Health and the Ministry of Labour to ensure that our increased sanitation measures, along with the physical distancing measures, the additional PPE provided by us to production workers, and the requirement to wear masks at all times in all areas of our facility, are appropriate preventative measures to keep our employees well-protected in the workplace,” Carol Gardin, Maple Lodge Farms director of corporate affairs said in a statement.
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“We fully trust their directions and they are satisfied with our preventive plan and implementation.”
Asked about allegations that workers were incentivized to come into the plant amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Gardin said Maple Lodge explained that it was common practice for the company to offer incentives to employees.
“We have always offered gifts to all of our employees, including those who are absent from the workplace, to recognize them for their hard work,” she said.
Maple Lodge said it has temporarily suspended one-third of their operations to allow for a deep-clean of the plant. Employees are required to wear masks at all times and non-essential visitors have been banned from the plant.
The company also said that each investigation took place in co-operation with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“We are proud of the work our employees are doing to keep Canadians fed during this very challenging time and we are doing everything we can to keep them safe as they perform this essential work.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents workers at the chicken processing facility, says provincial officials have also instructed the company to improve practices in response to recent complaints from employees and subsequent inspections during the new coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m aware of at least eight where they were on-site inspections,” Deelstra said. “The ministry came in and there have been some orders that have been produced from the ministry.
“In particular, one around the change room, making sure that there was a process put in place that people could access the change room in a safe, physically distant manner.”
The union said it would investigate allegations about a lack of physical distancing in common areas, according to Deelstra.
“If that isn’t happening, it should be,” he said. “It’s our understanding that the employer has taken action to make sure that any common areas, including break rooms, are set up in such a way that you don’t have people close together.
“I will follow up with our representatives to make sure that is happening.”
Maple Lodge is among a number of food plants and slaughterhouses in North America that have been coping with outbreaks and deaths linked to the spread of COVID-19 among workers in tight spaces where it’s difficult to stay more than two metres apart.
Deelstra said the union was working to ensure that all of its members, who may be recent immigrants, understand they have a right to refuse unsafe work, and suggested that all essential workers should be awarded bonus pay for working in the middle of the ongoing crisis.
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“The workforce is concerned and that is not unique to Maple Lodge farms,” he said. ”That is every workplace that we represent that’s working now. We hear concerns from people about what it’s like to go to work and the stress of going to work.”
One employee at Maple Lodge said a large percentage of the 1,200 workers at the plant are new immigrants, who are left in precarious employment and need to work.
“When you’re new to the country you will work in literally deplorable conditions and you don’t say no. That’s what happens with immigrants,” they said.
After Global News first reported Wednesday that the company waited nearly three weeks before publicly disclosing the cases, the company and the union representing workers, UFCW Local 175, confirmed that 25 employees at the plant had COVID-19 and one person has died.
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Maple Lodge said it was the responsibility of Peel Public Health to report the numbers publicly. Peel Public Health did not respond to a question from Global News.
“It is crucial that numbers are reported through them to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the information,” Gardin said.
Maple Lodge said in a statement the company expressed “deep sadness” about the “devastating news” that one of its employees with COVID-19 had passed away. It also said it was in touch with the family to offer condolences and that it was “dedicated to providing the support and reassurance” to help its employees cope with the tragedy.
Premier Doug Ford told reporters at a news conference that the government had implemented 60 safety protocols for workplaces such as food plants.
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But Deelstra also said that the Ford government had repealed parts of legislation that protected some worker rights, including enhancing sick leave. The measures, including provisions that helped provide workers with more predictable and reliable work schedules, were initially included in the former Liberal government’s Bill 148, but repealed by Ford’s government in 2018.
“I think that this pandemic has shown that… people need those securities in order to operate on our society,” Deelstra said.
“We know that there are people who have to make those difficult choices between looking after their own health and looking after their economic health. So I do think that when you take away things from the social safety net that are there to protect people, there are going to be consequences.”
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Maple Lodge had previously urged former premier Kathleen Wynne’s government not to adopt those changes during provincial consultations, saying it was “concerned” there wasn’t enough data about precarious work to support major reforms to labour legislation and that concerns about precarious work were “overstated.”
“We believe that it is important that government have a more comprehensive understanding of the types of employment associated with precarious work in order to ensure that policy changes are focused on empirically demonstrated issues,” wrote Gardin, in a letter responding to an interim provincial report about labour reforms from July 2016.
When asked about the letter, Gardin told Global News that the former government’s review had defined precarious employment as “‘work for remuneration characterized by uncertainty, low income, and limited social benefits’ which does not characterize the type of employment offered in our facility.”
A spokesperson for the provincial labour ministry said it was not immediately able to respond to questions on Friday afternoon about the implications of the repealed legislation or provide details about any recent inspections or orders directed at the Maple Lodge facility.