Meat-plant union calls for shutdown, government help to deal with COVID-19 outbreak

CALGARY — The union representing workers of the Olymel meat processing plant is calling for a temporary shutdown of the plant, and for the provincial government to step in, following the death of a worker in his 30s.

The president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 401, Thomas Hesse, said COVID-19 is an occupational illness for meat plant workers and needs to be treated as such.

“It can’t be said that this is a one-off, we’re hearing about this day after day,” Hesse said.

The death of a male worker in his 30s was reported Jan. 28 with Alberta Health Services saying the man did not have any pre-existing conditions, which the union confirmed.

Hesse says the union is asking the government to implement protective restrictions on plants, similar to safety restrictions in place for the general public.

“Agriculture and food processing is such a big part of our economy and we’re really disturbed that policy makers aren’t treating this as an occupational illness.”

The Red Deer plant is currently dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19 with 168 cases, 90 of which are currently active.

The union is asking for the plant to close down until the virus is no longer present, with staff being paid during the closure.

“This is something Olymel takes very seriously,” says Richard Vigneault, spokesperson for the Quebec-based company “We’ve received the union’s request and will be responding to that very soon.”

Hesse hopes that the provincial government will implement workplace regulation to protect workers.

“People continue to bump into each other, this is not about washing our hands and it’s not about PPE anymore. Those are factors at play, but this is an occupational illness and we need to get a handle on it.”

The Cargill plant south of Calgary is currently undergoing their second outbreak of the pandemic. An outbreak at that facility last year saw three deaths with almost half of the employees contracted the virus.

“We’re seeing these human tragedies play out. These are new Canadians, racialized Canadians, vulnerable workers that’re bringing food to our tables and they’re going to work with a pit of terror in their stomach every day.”

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