Union continues to fight beef plant’s May 4 reopening in High River, Alta., after it closed due to COVID-19 outbreak
The Cargill beef processing plant in High River, Alta., reopened May 4 with two shifts after a two-week shutdown that occurred when hundreds of its workers tested positive for COVID-19.
Employees began arriving early in the morning while efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to address workers’ safety concerns continued. UFCW local 401 has filed an unfair labour practice complaint against the company and the provincial government. Its status was unknown at press time.
As of May 1, 921 Cargill workers had contracted the virus and more than 631 had recovered, according to Alberta Health Services data.
Cargill said protective measures are in place to reduce risk to employees.
“Alberta Health Services will be onsite and we will conduct our ongoing screening to safeguard employees and ensure no one exhibiting symptoms enters the facility,” the company said in a May 4 statement.
“We care about our employees and this community. Our thoughts are with our friends and colleagues who have been impacted by the virus. We are grateful to the local businesses and community members who are showing our team care and making them feel welcome in the community during this challenging time.”
Cargill’s April 29 announcement that it would reopen May 4 garnered relief from cattle producers. The temporary closure of the plant and reduced operations at the JBS plant in Brooks, Alta., also due to COVID-19 among its workers, (390 positive cases as of May 1) had already created a backlog of about 100,000 head of cattle awaiting processing.
Both plants, which between them slaughter about 70 percent of the cattle in Canada, are now running at reduced speed. JBS is reportedly running one shift and Cargill, as of May 4, was running two shifts on the slaughter side and planned to resume fabrication shifts May 6.
A halt to slaughter at the JBS plant April 30 and May 1 sent alarm bells through the industry but a return to slaughter and continued operation of one shift at the plant was expected May 4 after it had freed up freezer space, according to Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe.
That news and that of the Cargill plant reopening was welcomed, he added, though it doesn’t mean the end to problems created by reduced daily slaughter overall and the CCA continues to press the federal government for financial help.
“That’s great news,” Lowe said of Cargill’s restart. “But it doesn’t diminish the fact that they’re reopening but it’s at 1,500 to 2,000 head a day so the backlog is still going to keep building.”
Lowe said JBS is processing about 1,000 head a day at its reduced rate. Many Canadian cattle are also slaughtered at American plants in normal times, but those have also had workers infected with the virus and have slowed or temporarily closed.
Last week, United States President Donald Trump issued an executive order that food processing plants reopen. If and when that happens, it won’t immediately help the Canadian backlog, Lowe said.
“They’ve got their own to catch up to,” he said of U.S. producers with fat cattle at the ready. “The other thing is, he issued that order but if people are sick they can’t go to work anyway.”
Lowe said CCA executive vice-president Dennis Laycraft is in daily contact with the two large Alberta plants. Lowe himself has seen video of the changes made inside Cargill to separate workers on the processing line and in locker and lunchrooms.
Those changes are impressive, he said, and have met the approval of Alberta Health Services.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said April 30 that health officials and environmental public health inspectors checked the plant in person at least twice while it was running and once last week after stoppage to review the changes made to protect workers from infection and from contact with other workers.
She confirmed that AHS would also have inspectors on site when the plant restarted operations.
“There was a review of all of the plans that the plant had in terms of safe opening and safe operating, walking through all of the spaces to see where physical barriers have been put in place between work stations, for example,” Hinshaw said.
She said health personnel have provided her with information on changes in the plant and have deemed the plant safe for workers.
However, Thomas Hesse of the UFCW has reported that surveys indicate employees remain afraid to work at the plant due to the risk of infection with COVID-19. A full complement of workers, about 2,000 at Cargill, is thus not expected in the short term.
Alberta’s NDP opposition supported the union’s concerns about worker safety. In a news release, labour critic Christina Gray said they have not been adequately heard or addressed, either at the Cargill plant or at JBS.
“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.”
Lowe 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,” he said. “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.”
Alberta processing plant capacity reductions caused McDonald’s last week to announce it would source beef from other countries to fill its needs. President and chief executive officer John E. Betts said the move was temporary and that the fast-food restaurants would return to all-Canadian product when it is available.
Lowe said McDonald’s has been a strong supporter of the Canadian cattle industry and the announcement had an up side.
“What that tells me is they’re still selling a lot of hamburgers and that is really, really good. It just leads from our reduced slaughtering capacity. I would far rather they source hamburger somewhere else and kept selling hamburgers than all of a sudden didn’t sell hamburgers anymore.”