Dear Minister Copping:
In the wake of Alberta’s first COVID-19 workplace death, I’m writing today to demand a number of things from your Ministry and your government.
First, on behalf of the unions affiliated with the Alberta Federation of Labour, we demand that you open a formal investigation into the circumstances of this tragic workplace fatality. You should begin by taking the steps necessary to prepare for a criminal investigation into the matter under the so-called “Westray provisions” of the Criminal Code. As you know, Section 217.1 of the Code reads as follows:
“Everyone who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task.”
Given that the workers at the plant and their union (United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401) begged both you and their employer (Cargill Foods Inc.) to suspend operations at the plant more than two weeks ago, it is our contention that managers failed in their duty to “prevent bodily harm” to the worker who died and to the hundreds of her co-workers who have become infected. Under these circumstances, a run-of-the-mill OH&S investigation is not enough – and should only be conducted if the RCMP decides not to proceed with criminal charges under the Westray Act.
The previous government negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Alberta police forces, including the RCMP, detailing how to handle criminal prosecutions for workplace fatalities. Your government must make use of that MOU in this case.
Second, in order to avoid more deaths, we demand that you temporarily shut down the other mega-meatpacking plant in Alberta, JBS Foods (JBS) in Brooks, because it’s clearly on the same path of infection as the Cargill plant. Operations at the Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer should be suspended for the same reasons.
When Cargill workers asked for their plant to be closed, there were 38 confirmed cases; within two weeks, that had become nearly 400. Today, there are more than 50 confirmed cases at JBS and the infection has spread to the community of Brooks. Do we really have to wait until another worker dies before operations at that plant are suspended, too?
Third, we demand that you stop shutting workers out of the conversation. Whether it was Cargill, JBS, Superstore or virtually any other employer in this province, when your government and AHS have addressed the workplace implications of COVID-19, it has always been a conversation with employers and employers alone. Even your government’s telephone town hall meeting with Cargill workers (which deliberately excluded their union) was a one-way affair (it was designed to present your message of reassurance rather than to collect input from workers) and it was conducted long after the workers started raising concerns (the horse was long out of the barn).
This approach of treating employers as the only stakeholder worth talking to on critical issues related to workplace safety is completely wrong-headed. It’s the workers, not managers or CEOs, who see the problems on the shop floor first. And, just as importantly, it’s workers who bear the consequences of inaction and delay. The lesson from Cargill is clear; it’s foolhardy, perhaps even deadly, to ignore the voices and concerns of workers.
Fourth, we demand that you take the necessary steps to give “presumptive coverage” for the purpose of WCB benefits to Albertans working in sectors and workplaces deemed essential during the current public health emergency. In other words, if a person working in an essential service is diagnosed with COVID-19, it should be presumed that he or she contracted the disease due to exposure at work, and, therefore, that worker should be eligible for WCB benefits. The tragic case of the Cargill worker who died on Monday should be seen as a test case; their family should receive survivor benefits from WCB.
Finally, I want to reiterate two points I made in the letter I sent to you on April 16, 2020. The time has clearly come for your government to re-evaluate the list of workplaces that have been deemed essential and the time has also clearly come for your government to stop allowing employers to essentially regulate themselves. We demand more inspections (in-person inspections, not the kind of “virtual” inspections your staff conducted at Cargill). And, we demand more aggressive enforcement. If an employer is not complying with public health directives, they should be shut down, plain and simple.
In conclusion, let me say this, if your government is really serious about protecting the front-line workers who you call heroes – and if you’re really serious about protecting the public by stopping the spread of the coronavirus – then you need to take the lead on ensuring that public health directives are followed in Alberta workplaces, rather than leaving compliance up to employers. If you don’t take a more aggressive approach, we are certain that there will be more infections and more deaths. Do you really want that to be your legacy?
I hope that we can discuss these important issues in greater detail. I’ll be contacting you for a meeting shortly.
Alberta Federation of Labour