Labour advocates call for Alberta meat-packing plant to close as they mourn workplace deaths

Labour leaders in Alberta held an online vigil Tuesday to honour workers who have lost their lives on the job and used the occasion to call for the closure of meat plant hit with a COVID-19 outbreak, the second plant in the province linked to a major outbreak of the contagious illness.

The vigil marked the National Day of Mourning in Canada, an annual event to commemorate workers killed due to workplace related hazards.

Last year, 165 workers in Alberta died in the workplace.

Alex Shevalier, president of the Calgary and District Labour Council, 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 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,” Shevalier 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 work site 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, about 180 kilometres southeast of Calgary. 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 to close. 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 choose 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 channelling 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.