OHS Canada Magazine

Union ‘deeply troubled’ by lack of COVID-19 protection at Alberta meat plant

Cargill reduces shift following letter of complaint


By Lauren Krugel

HIGH RIVER, Alta. — The operator of a meat plant south of Calgary says it is reducing shifts a day after a union raised concerns about a lack of COVID-19 safety measures.

The president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 wrote Sunday to the general manager of Cargill Meat Solutions in High River, Alta., saying the company wasn’t doing enough to protect employees.

Thomas Hesse wrote that the plant is designed around efficiency and that work is done in a manner that is the opposite of social distancing.

He demanded a two-week closure to assess safety and guaranteed full compensation for the plant’s approximately 2,000 workers during the shutdown.

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Hesse also wrote that the union wants an immediate meeting with experts and government officials to design clear and enforceable safety rules.

An executive with Minneapolis-based Cargill says the second shift at the High River plant is being idled to minimize the impact of COVID-19.

‘Difficult decision’

“This was a difficult decision for our team, but our values are guiding our actions,” Jon Nash, the North America lead of Cargill Protein, said in a statement Monday.

Nash said Cargill is giving temporary wage increases and bonuses to employees. It is also implementing temperature testing, enhanced cleaning and a ban on visitors.

He added Cargill is also adopting social distancing practices where possible and offering staggered breaks and shift flexibility.

“Our employees are working hard to keep food on tables in local communities,” Nash said. “While this location is working at reduced capacity and we adapt to operating during a pandemic, our work doesn’t stop.”

UFCW 401 said on its Facebook page that there were 38 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a single Alberta food processing plant, but did not say which one.

Hesse said in his letter to Cargill that there are reports of 30 deaths from the novel coronavirus among UFCW members in North America.

“Your employees are scared. It is time to act. It is time to protect life.”