Union fights reopening of Cargill beef plant

Efforts are underway to prevent the planned reopening of the Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., slated for May 4.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has filed an unfair labour practices complaint claiming dangerous mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic preparations within the plant.

As of May 1, 921 Cargill workers had tested positive for the virus. One worker died two weeks ago and another 631 had recovered from the illness. The plant temporarily ceased operations on April 27.

The union’s complaint calls for an interim order to keep the plant closed until the government and union review findings of an out-of-province investigator’s report, with that investigator yet to be appointed.

It also called for personal protective equipment to be supplied by Cargill, to ensure a union representative is present when production resumes, to have daily reports on exposure and diagnosed cases of the virus among workers, and union involvement in all meetings or tours conducted by Occupational Health and Safety, Alberta Health or Alberta Health Services.

Graham White, on behalf of Cargill, issued an emailed statement today in response.

“The safety of our employees is our top priority. We are engaging in good faith with the UFCW,” wrote White. “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.

“Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health & 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.”

Alberta’s NDP opposition supported the union’s complaint. In a news release, labour critic Christina Gray said worker concerns about safety have not been adequately heard or addressed, either at the Cargill plant or at the JBS beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta., where there have been 390 positive COVID-19 cases among workers.

“The workers aren’t at the table and now they’re being asked to return to a workplace that ignored their legitimate safety concerns in the first place,” Gray said. “These plants should both be closed and remain closed until all parties are in agreement that worker safety is being property addressed.”

Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said he understands the duty of the union to represent and protect the workers.

“On the other hand, they are deemed an essential service and with that comes a certain responsibility,” said Lowe.

“The reason that they’re deemed an essential service is that they’re supplying food. It’s critical that we keep the food chain intact both for Canadians and for our markets around the world.

“We’ve got an obligation to feed people and that is all part of the process of feeding people. You’ve got to look after the people (the workers) first but there comes a point where you’ve also got to live up to your responsibilities.”

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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