The Ontario government said it first received complaints about working conditions from Maple Lodge Farms employees in early April, nearly two weeks before an outbreak of COVID-19 sickened at least two dozen workers at a facility in Brampton.
One month later, the company, which describes itself as Canada’s largest chicken processor, says it is still working to resolve an outstanding issue regarding physical distancing in its locker rooms.
“We can confirm there have been eight complaints from April 2, 2020 to May 8, 2020 at the Maple Lodge Farms facility in Brampton,” said Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development spokesperson Janet Deline, in an email.
“Four orders have been issued to reach compliance with Ontario’s health and safety laws.”
At least one employee has died as a result of COVID-19, in addition to 25 confirmed cases, and the ministry has launched an investigation.
The union that represents workers at the plant, United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, said that not all of the eight complaints were specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic and some related to other general safety issues.
But spokesperson Tim Deelstra said that the union was frustrated about oversight from the ministry in response to complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic in all Ontario workplaces.
“We think it’s a serious issue and we want to keep people as safe as possible,” Deelstra told Global News.
“That’s why we advocate, still, for things like making sure the (production) lines spread people apart. We’re also asking for everyone in the meat-packing industry to be tested.”
Deline said the ministry was unable to reveal why all of the orders were issued, explaining that it could compromise the integrity of the investigation.
She said the “issuance orders” are handed out to ensure employers are following proper Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations.
Global News first reported last week on workers at the chicken processing plant who alleged they weren’t being given enough personal protective equipment and said the plant is failing to take proper physical distancing measures in common areas like the change rooms and lunch rooms.
The company 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.
“We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Labour, Peel Public Health and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in order to ensure our workplace is safe,” Carol Gardin, Maple Lodge Farms director of corporate affairs, said in an email.
She noted that all three agencies toured the Brampton facility Wednesday.
“We are currently working on one outstanding item with the Ministry of Labour which is a plan to improve physical distancing in our locker rooms,” she said. “We fully respect the rights of workers to advise of any workplace concerns and commit to fully investigating all complaints.”
Maple Lodge said it has temporarily suspended one-third of their operations to allow for a deep-clean of the plant and non-essential visitors have been banned from the plant.
Global News first reported the company, which publicly announced its first cases on May 4, had actually received confirmation an employee tested positive for the virus on April 15.
Wayne Gates, NDP Critic for Workplace Health and Safety, urged the Ford government to recognize and enforce the protections for workers to refuse unsafe work, especially as the province begins taking steps to re-open the economy.
“We are deeply concerned about the outbreak at Maple Lodge Farms, that has already led to the tragic death of a worker from COVID-19.
“No one should ever have to choose between keeping their job and coming home safe and healthy. People need to know the Ford government will protect every worker’s right under Ontario law to refuse unsafe work.”
While the ministry did not reveal the nature of the complaints, Global News has spoken with employees who have alleged unsafe working conditions, intimidation and overcrowding on production lines.
One employee alleges that some productions lines, which are designed for 14 workers — seven on each side — are often overcrowded, with the company fitting more than 20 workers on the line.
“It was shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes you can’t even lift both shoulders,” they said.
“People were complaining about this before but there was nothing done about it.”
The employee also said a large percentage of the 1,200 workers at the plant are new immigrants, who are often 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.
“The one thing Maple Lodge will tell you, if you don’t like it, ‘go home.”
Maple Lodge Farms declined to answer specific questions about allegations of overcrowding or intimidation.
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.
A Cargill meat-processing plant south of Montreal said it was temporarily suspending operations this week after at least 64 workers tested positive for COVID-19.
The outbreak in Chambly, Que. marks the second time the company has experienced an outbreak of the new coronavirus at one of its facilities in Canada. The outbreak at a plant in High River, Alberta sickened over 950 employees and led to two deaths, which forced the facility to close for two weeks.
In late April, the Toronto Star reported that more than 200 workers in various places of work across Ontario had attempted to refuse work due to fears about the novel coronavirus, but that on each occasion, the Labour Ministry ordered them back to work.