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Union takes legal action to stop Cargill meat-packing plant from reopening amid COVID-19 outbreak

The union representing workers at an Alberta meat-processing plant that is at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak is taking legal action to stop its planned reopening on Monday.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 is seeking a stop-work order from Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and has also filed an unfair labour practice complaint against both the Cargill plant and the Government of Alberta.

“The plant should be able to operate fairly with adequate rules in place and adequate procedures. We’re not confident those procedures are there and workers aren’t confident the procedures are there,” said Thomas Hesse, president of the union.

As of Friday afternoon, 921 employees at the plant — which is south of Calgary, and provides about 40 per cent of the beef processing in Canada — have tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a letter, dated Thursday, to Cargill, OHS and Alberta’s Ministry of Labour and Immigration — the union alleges that its concerns surrounding physical distancing have not been sufficiently addressed.

It also alleges that Cargill has yet to conduct an investigation or produce a report on the “serious incidents” reported in connection with COVID-19, including a worker in her 60s who died.

UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse says Alberta Health Services inspection reports have not been shared with the union. (Charlotte Dumoulin/Radio-Canada)

The union said Dr. Brent Friesen, a medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services (AHS), confirmed seven Cargill employees have been hospitalized and five are in intensive care.

“Despite this, the union notes no Alberta OHS officer has contacted the union or any union representatives [on the committee],” the letter reads.

The complaint also calls for a union representative to be present if the plant reopens and for personal protective equipment to be provided by Cargill, along with daily reports of cases of COVID-19.

‘Engaging in good faith’

In a statement, a spokesperson for Cargill said representatives with AHS and OHS reviewed the safety measures at the facility and support reopening.

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

Hesse said workers were “scared to death” to return to work on Monday.

“Who wouldn’t be nervous about that? Adequate assurances have not been provided,” he said. “For the government and the company to turn their nose up at the voice of workers is ridiculous. Why wouldn’t they have included us in the process?”

In a release, NDP labour critic Christina Gray said the Opposition was in favour of the complaint.

“The people who work on the shop floor have a right to be kept safe,” said Gray.

NDP labour critic Christina Gray said both Cargill and JBS in Brooks should be closed until all agree worker safety has been addressed. (CBC)

The company said Wednesday the plant would reopen with one shift beginning May 4, saying that safety measures including new protective barriers and restrictions on carpooling had been introduced.

Cargill has said protective barriers have been installed on the production floor to allow for more spacing between employees and face shields have been introduced in places where protective barriers are not possible.

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