Thomas Hesse, President of Local 401 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said three cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed at the JBS plant in Brooks, Alberta.
At the Cargill plant in High River, there are 38 cases of COVID-19, and in March, a Harmony Beef worker in Balzac tested positive.
Dedicated test center
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said that while local health officials have resolved the situation at Harmony, the number of cases at Cargill has prompted Alberta Health Services to open a test center. dedicated to this factory this week.
“Local public health has worked with these sites to ensure that close contacts are isolated and to prevent transmission. There is no risk to the public from the food produced in these factories, “said Hinshaw.
Hesse said the union had contacted these factories – as well as the Olymel pork factory in Red Deer – to ask the companies to proactively shut down to keep workers safe.
“They all said no. But Cargill has in some ways done what we asked because of the pressure, “said Hesse, adding that the plant had significantly reduced its operations.
Hesse said 1,000 workers at Cargill have been laid off and another 500 are without teams.
But John Nash, the North American manager of Cargill Protein, said there were no layoffs. Instead, he said that a second shift at the factory had been canceled and that workers could change jobs if they were healthy and able to work.
Nash said the plant is working with Alberta Health and its own security officials and will consider closing it if necessary. Improved projections, barriers between workstations and other physical distance measures have been put in place.
“If it gets to a point where we can’t do what we need to do safely, we won’t be running this facility,” said Nash.
A JBS Food Canada spokesperson confirmed that its Brooks plant remained open and workers were positive at some of its facilities.
“We are providing support to these team members and their families, and we hope they all recover quickly and out of respect. Out of respect for families, we are not disclosing additional information, “said a statement sent by email to JBS.
The company said improved health and safety measures have been put in place.
“Food supply is a critical infrastructure industry and we have a special responsibility to maintain operations on behalf of the country. We take this responsibility seriously, ”said the press release.
Hesse said factories are built to have workers in tight neighborhoods, making physical distance difficult.
A dozen meat packing plants in North America have closed due to a coronavirus.
The industry is demanding and does not resist the risk of infection due to proximity, with workers subjected to physical work and repetitive tasks.
“The workers work side by side … overcrowded hallways, overcrowded changing rooms, overcrowded dining rooms, overcrowded toilets and of course an overcrowded production floor,” said Hesse.
“This is a very profound moment, and I just don’t know why the company is ready to say ‘stay home, do everything you can to prevent the spread of this virus’ … but we allow one – everything in food processing plants and grocery stores. ”
These three factories represent about three-quarters of Canada’s beef suppliers – Cargill alone, which supplies McDonald’s Canada, among others, accounts for more than a third.
A group in the livestock industry have contacted the federal government to ask them to take action to slow the supply chain as factories have to change their operations to adapt.
If COVID-19 cases continue to escalate, labor shortages could affect the food supply and undermine Canada’s critical infrastructure, warns an internal government briefing note obtained by CBC News.
The document, prepared by Public Safety Canada, indicates that accelerating disease rates among Canadians could create labor shortages in essential services.
According to him, the two most “pressing” areas of concern are the supply of medical products and the stability of the food supply chain.
Nash said Canadians shouldn’t worry about the beef supply at this point, but said the pressure to stay open will never cause the business to run unsafe.