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Cargill plant reopens with fears from workers, fight from union

Last Updated May 5, 2020 at 6:27 am MDT

Summary

There’s a fight here against a meat plant that’s home to the largest outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the country

The company says AHS will be on site screening staff and making sure those with symptoms can’t go inside

CALGARY (CityNews) – The Cargill meat processing plant has reopened, but with fears from workers and bitter battle from their union.

“It’s not yet safe, but I don’t have a choice,” said a Cargill worker.

“I saw fear in their eyes, I saw anxiety in their eyes. I saw people having to make hard choices between the security of their life and their need to make a living,” said Thomas Hesse, President, UFCW Local 401.

There’s a fight here against a meat plant that’s home to the largest outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the country.

The union members were handing out masks and rallying outside the Southern Alberta facility on Monday, after its temporary closure on April 20.

There are more than 900 cases at the plant which has 2,000 workers, and the union wanted a stop-work order.

An employee who spoke with CityNews on the condition of anonymity says his wife is concerned about his health. “She’s worrying, she’s afraid for me because she already knows that I’m going to go back.”

UFCW Local 401 recently surveyed over 600 members. It says 85 per cent of respondents are scared and 80 per cent said the plant should not reopen Monday.

Alberta Health Services inspected the facility and says it’s safe.

“Cargill, with support from Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Occupational, Health and Safety (OHS), will resume operations at its High River, Alta. protein facility with two shifts beginning this morning, May 4. All employees who are healthy and eligible to work in our harvest department are asked to report to work. Fabrication shifts will resume on May 6,” said Cargill in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says worker safety is a provincial responsibility but Ottawa can offer support. “The federal government has a role to play as well, particularly around ensuring there are adequate safeguards and PPEs in place.”

The union accuses Cargill of tarnishing the beef industry’s reputation and says it wrote to the company Easter weekend calling for the closure.

“They kind of stuck their nose up to that and they continued to operate. The number of diagnoses skyrocketed, someone has very tragically died, five individuals fighting for their lives in ICU right now and they’re reopening the plant. It’s just plain wrong,” said Hesse.

In a statement, Cargill says, “according to health officials, the majority of our employees remain healthy or have recovered. We are grateful for our workers’ dedication and resilience as our plant and community walks through this heart-wrenching pandemic.”

The company says AHS will be on-site screening staff and making sure those with symptoms can’t go inside. Cargill also worked to reduce carpooling and close contact with distancing measures at the plant.

The union also wants daily health and safety meetings and a third-party investigation. It filed an unfair labour practice complaint against Cargill and the Government of Alberta.