Labour leaders in Alberta held on an online vigil Tuesday to mark the National Day of Mourning in Canada, to grieve workers who have lost their lives while on the job and call for action to prevent further deaths.
Last year, 165 workers in Alberta died in the workplace.
Alex Shevalier, president of the Calgary and District Labour Council, took the time to read out the names of all those who died in 2019, but also ensured another recent death was front of mind.
Earlier this month, a woman in her 60s of Vietnamese background contracted COVID-19 through her work at the Cargill meat-packing plant near High River. Her husband was hospitalized with the illness.
That plant is now home to the largest outbreak linked to a single site in Canada, with 1,167 cases — 759 of whom are workers.
“What we do now is what matters. We cannot bring that sister back but we have to fight for the living. We need a public inquiry and we need a criminal investigation and we need them now,” he said during Tuesday’s livestream.
No preventative inspection of Cargill was done after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, and a live video inspection by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety after dozens at the plant were already sick deemed the worksite safe to remain open.
Days later, the outbreak had grown to hundreds and the plant was shut down after the woman’s death.
Some employees at the facility have accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation.
Despite 249 cases, Brooks plant remains open
Another 249 employees have tested positive at a second meat-packing plant, JBS in Brooks. There are 568 cases in Brooks, though not all are linked to the plant which remains open.
The two plants have more than 4,500 workers and supply more than two-thirds of Canada’s beef.
During the livestream, labour leaders called for the JBS plant’s closure. An online petition asking for the same has gained thousands of signatures.
“This day of morning is perhaps unlike any other in recent history as there are hundreds of thousands of workers … who are going to work in the face of the most serious public health crisis in the history of our province,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
“We cannot expect them to keep us safe if we cannot keep them safe.”
Notley said every day the provincial government and the company chose to keep the JBS plant open, “they are choosing to put profits over people.”
Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said while he is mourning the losses of workers, he has also channeling that grief into anger.
“If we don’t get a handle on the problem in the workplace … it could imperil the province’s success as a whole, and push back the timeline for reopening the economy safely,” he said.
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday that outbreak measures are being put in place, including at any meat-processing facility where at least one case of COVID-19 has been identified.
Hinshaw said it’s up to businesses to comply with health orders if they are deemed essential and are remaining open.