Workers pressure bosses to close slaughterhouse full of covid

Henry De Leon, an Olymel slaughterhouse worker, was killed by COVID-19 January 28 2021

BOSSES NEVER LISTEN TO WORKERS. But in Red Deer, Alberta on February 15 they did. They voluntarily shut down all operations of the Olymel slaughterhouse in Red Deer. They agreed with their workers. The plant was simply not a safe place to work.

The workers knew it in their bones. A COVID-19 outbreak in the plant that started in November flared up in late January: 426 workers got infected; one died. Health authorities said it was nothing to worry about. The workers disagreed.

They pressed their union, UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 401, to get managers to admit the danger and close the plant. When covid killed an Olymel worker on January 28 Local 401 president Thomas Hesse called for an immediate shutdown.

“Workers are starting to just not show up for work because they’re frightened,” he said.

A personal appeal

Olymel remained unmoved. Hesse tried a personal appeal. On February 13, he wrote a “Dear Rob” letter to Rob Ackerblade, the plant manager. Hesse wrote: “I do not know you well, but it has been my sense that you share at least some of my concern for the well-being of the employees.”

Hesse wrote that the fear of getting sick was so great that to ask workers to keep working was torture.

“I ask that you boldly join with me and them in our call for Olymel and the Government of Alberta to do the right thing,” wrote Hesse. “This need not be another Cargill. We can bring comfort to good people who are terrified.”

Two days later Olymel announced they were shutting the slaughterhouse down for an indefinite period.

“They’ve come to their senses and agreed to hit the pause button,” Hesse told Global News.

“The workers are finally feeling relief. They’re scared to death. Now we have to figure out the pay issue,” he added. He said the union is investigating if the workers qualify for existing government assistance programs.

A good start

Closing Olymel was good, but not enough for the UFCW. The union held a rally at the closed plant on February 17 to show respect for the pork plant worker killed by covid, support for the hundreds infected at the plant and still suffering with the virus, and to reinforce their demand for more government action to make it safe for all workers, in every workplace.

“Unsafe workplaces should not be allowed to operate,” said Hesse. “ So we’re here to remind Olymel that they need to complete the process of closure.

“We need to talk to the government, we need to talk to the experts and this can’t happen again. This is really becoming the shame of Alberta’s agriculture industry.”

He said the union is asking public health officials to interview workers at the plant.

“We want to meet with public health officials and the employer and have them hear a worker’s perspective.

Health officials said plant was safe

The fact the company acted in it’s own to close the plant was a surprise. Even more surprising was the fact the Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) were not involved in that decision. Both had approved the plant safe to continue operating.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says the province chose not to shut down the slaughterhouse because the company had been successfully keeping transmission down.

“The processes that had been put in place at the plant site had been very successful in reducing spread,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

Hinshaw also suggested that the health authorities could not be held responsible for the increase in infections at the plant due to “a concurrence of a number of events that were not limited to events directly on that plant site.”

Hesse wasn’t buying it. “The fact of the matter is almost 2,000 people go to this workplace and this is a workplace illness and an occupational hazard,” Hesse said.

“If we saw a wedding on TV with 2,000 or 1,800 people in attendance we’d freak out.”

Protection in every workplace

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour demanded a meeting with the premier and provincial labour minister to ensure workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks are closed down before workers die or infections spread.

“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,” Gil McGowan said.

“I’m going to demand that they do their damn jobs.”

The death count from covid infections among Olymel slaughterhouse workers continues to rise.

Alberta Health reported a woman in her 60s was killed by the virus on February 21; Henry De Leon, 50, who worked at the plant for 15 years was killed by the virus on February 24.

Darwin Doloque, 35, died January 28. He was the first Olymel worker to die from COVID-19 contracted at the plant.

Alberta Health declined to specify whether the woman covid victim was an employee or member of the community

As of February 26 the number of cases of COVID-19 infection at the plant had grown to 500.

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