The UCP has been derelict in their duty to keep workers and the public safe, says McGowan
Edmonton - Alberta’s largest worker advocacy organization, the Alberta Federation of Labour, is echoing the call from NDP Leader Rachel Notley for a public inquiry into the Kenney government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer.
In fact, AFL president Gil McGowan says the scope of the inquiry should be expanded to cover other meatpacking plants and workplaces in other sectors, like long-term care, where people have died as a result of workplace exposure to the virus.
“The Kenney government has an awful record when it comes to dealing with COVID-19 in the workplace,” says McGowan.
“An inquiry into the government’s role at Olymel is warranted because they didn’t shut down the plant even after a worker died and more than half the workforce became infected. In fact, unlike their counterparts in other provinces, the Alberta government has never shut down a major workplace during the pandemic, even when outbreaks were out of control and workers were dying. They have always left those decisions up to employers. This is clearly an ideological choice to put the interests of employers ahead of the interests of workers. And it’s a clear dereliction of the government’s duty to keep workers and the public safe.”
So far, four deaths have been linked to workplace exposure to COVID-19 at the Olymel plant. A larger number of workers have been hospitalized – and more than half of the workforce was infected at one time or another over the past two months. As was the case with the Cargill plant south of Calgary in the first wave, the outbreak at the Olymel plant has also driven a spike in infections in the surrounding community.
McGowan says a spotlight urgently needs to be placed on the Kenney’s government's handling of COVID-19 in the workplace because Olymel is thinking of re-opening its Red Deer plant as early as tomorrow and because the number of outbreaks in other workplaces around the province – especially in oil and gas related workplaces in the Fort McMurray area – are trending upwards ominously.
“We understand that public inquiries take time, often years,” says McGowan. “But just the announcement of an inquiry alone would put the government on notice that their approach to COVID-19 in the workplace needs to change.”
McGowan says the inquiry could be modelled after the SARS Commission, set up by the Ontario government, which looked into the response to the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto area health facilities. The Commission concluded that the SARS outbreak was much worse than it needed to be because the government and employers failed to look at it as a workplace health and safety issue, in addition to a public health issue.
In particular, the Commission said workers and unions should have been consulted and respected more and that the precautionary principle (a key tenet of workplace health and safety practice) should have been followed.
Despite the fact that the AFL urged the Kenney government, as early as last April, to implement the lessons of from the SARS commission, McGowan says nothing was done – and Alberta workers, including the workers at Olymel and Cargill have been paying the price ever since.
Director of Communications, AFL
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