As Trump prepares to keep meat plants open, Trudeau emphasizes worker safety

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not say today whether his government would follow the example of the U.S. government Donald Trump and order the closure of meat processing plants during the pandemic – but stressed that worker safety is a priority.

In response to concerns over food shortages and supply chain disruptions yesterday, Trump issued an order under the Defense Production Act to force meat plants to continue operating.

The world’s largest meat companies – including Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., JBS USA and Tyson – have temporarily closed their doors in 20 or so abattoirs and processing plants in North America after workers are fell ill with COVID-19.

Cargill Inc.’s meat processing plant in Canada near High River, Alberta is now the site of the largest single site outbreak in the country. Alberta public health officials have counted 1,167 factory-related cases, including 759 factory workers.

The Cargill plant and the JBS plant in southern Alberta – where dozens of additional workers have tested positive – together supply about two-thirds of Canadian beef.

When asked if he would follow Trump’s lead and force factories to stay open, Trudeau said his government is closely monitoring the industry.

WATCH | Trudeau questions meat packing factories and security of food supply

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with journalists Wednesday 2:56 am

“We are watching with interest and concern some of the problems facing meat producers and the agricultural industry supply chain,” he told reporters during his daily briefing this morning.

“We have to make sure that these supply chains can continue to function, but we also have to make sure that the people who work in these supply chains – and will continue to work in difficult circumstances for weeks and months come, as we continue to fight COVID-19 – are kept safe. ”

This morning, McDonald’s Canada – which prominently mentions its use of Canadian beef in its advertisement – announced that it would start importing meat as Canada’s beef supply chain struggles to keep up with current demand .

The company said in a statement that its policy change was due to the limited processing capacity of Canadian suppliers, such as the Cargill plant.

TFW security concerns

The issue of meat supply heightens concerns about the living conditions of temporary foreign workers.

Many of the workers at the Cargill plant are Filipinos; some are temporary foreign workers and others are permanent residents.

Earlier this week, at least 40 workers at Kent Bridge, Ontario. greenhouse test positive for COVID-19.

Authorities say most of the Greenhill Produce employees who test positive for the disease are migrant workers, but most have been in Canada for four months to a year or more.

Greenhill Produce chief operating officer Justin Geertsema said just under half of the company’s workforce was isolated by COVID-19.

“We don’t know what the next few weeks will look like,” he said. “It will be difficult for everyone, but all we know is that we just have such an amazing team here. “

Any temporary foreign worker arriving in Canada must be isolated for two weeks, but industry critics and workers’ groups have expressed concerns about the tight quarters in which most migrant workers live in Canada.

“Unfortunately, I think this virus has highlighted some of the areas where we need to do better,” said chief public health doctor Dr. Theresa Tam on Wednesday.

“Workplaces must have good plans if they want to continue or if they have to think about reopening according to public health advice. “

Watch: Dr. Theresa Tam on pandemic plans in the workplace

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, says the COVID-19 virus has exposed gaps in occupational health and safety practices. 1:38

Tam said the pandemic has drawn attention to the way Canada treats vulnerable people such as secure workers, the elderly in long-term care homes and the homeless.

“I think that according to this next phase, we have to do better in each of these parameters,” she said.

Cargill announced the temporary closure of its beef production plant near High River, where local officials are handling more than 400 plant-related COVID-19 cases, including the death of a worker, in High River, Alberta, Thursday Thursday April. 23, 2020. (Jeff McIntosh / Canadian Press)

The federal government has set aside $ 50 million to help farmers who depend on temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Employers are eligible for $ 1,500 per foreign worker to help cover the costs of meeting a mandatory two-week quarantine requirement upon arrival in Canada.

“We are working closely with the agricultural industry to ensure that people get good, healthy food, especially in the early summer [when] there will be a need and an ability to get a lot of fresh vegetables and produce from across the country, “said Trudeau on Wednesday.

“We must continue to remain vigilant due to the great disruptions in many different sectors of our country, including, of course, agriculture.”

This matter is expected to be discussed later in the evening when Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau appears before a parliamentary committee.

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