But who will protect non-union workers as variants pick up steam across the province?
- Shocking AHS letter shows government didn’t act to protect workers at COVID-ridden pork plant.
- Instead of ordering the plant to close, they blamed the workers and encouraged the employer to threaten them.
- Employer only agreed to close the plant under pressure from union and threat of damning media coverage.
RED DEER – The owners of the Red Deer pork plant at the centre of a large COVID-19 outbreak reluctantly agreed to close down the facility late yesterday night – but only after pressure from the workers and their union and the threat of damning media coverage.
A confidential letter sent last Thursday from Alberta Health Services (AHS) to the plant management acknowledged that, as of last Wednesday, 297 of the plants approximately 600 workers had been diagnosed with COVID-19 contracted at the site. But, shockingly, AHS did NOT order that the plant be shut down. Instead, it blamed the workers and suggested that management remind staff members that they could be fined $1200 individually for not following public health directives.
The union for the workers – United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 – had been asking for the plant to be closed since February 5. But both the government and the employer ignored the workers’ pleas even after a worker, 35-year-old Darwin Doloque, died from a COVID-19 infection that he contracted at the plant.
“A worker death and an outbreak involving half of the staff wasn’t enough for the government to order the closure of the facility,” says Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan. “It was only after the union took the workers’ stories and the confidential AHS letter to the media that the company reluctantly agreed to a temporary closure. But there was still no government order. Both the government and the company were more concerned about maintaining production and managing their public images than protecting the lives of workers or mitigating the threat that the outbreak posed to the broader public. It’s disgusting and shameful.”
McGowan says the situation in Red Deer begs a number of important questions.
“First, if the UCP government won’t close a workplace where a worker has died and half the staff are infected, will they ever issue a closure order for public health reasons? It’s clear to us that the answer to that question is no. The UCP will never order employers to shut things down, no matter how bad things get and no matter how high the risk is to workers or the public. That’s very troubling, especially with the prospect of a third wave bearing down on us.”
“Second, if it takes concerted action and extraordinary measurers by unions to protect the lives of workers during outbreaks, what does that mean for the 75 per cent of Albertans who work in non-union workplaces? Who will protect those workers if there are major outbreaks in their workplaces? How can workers have confidence in AHS and the government to protect them after seeing what just happened in Red Deer? These are particularly urgent questions as more contagious and deadly variants of COVID-19 pick up steam across the province.”
McGowan says he will demand a meeting with the Labour Minister and the Premier to discuss ways to make sure that workplaces experiencing outbreaks are shut down before workers die and before they become hubs for viral spread to the broader community.
“I’m going to remind them that their job is to protect the public, not to protect the profits of corporations at the expense of workers or the public. I’m going to demand that they do their damn jobs.”
Director of Communications, AFL