Union seeks temporary halt for major Manitoba hog plant

Four Maple Leaf plant staff now COVID-positive

(File photo by Dave Bedard)

The union for about 2,000 workers at Maple Leaf Foods’ main Canadian hog slaughter and packing plant is calling for the company to put the brakes on production, pending further tests for COVID-19 among employees.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 832 said Thursday it was “made aware” late Wednesday night of three more positive cases of COVID-19 among what it described as “non-production unionized employees” at the Brandon, Man. plant.

Those cases bring the plant’s total to four, following a single case reported over the long weekend.

UFCW 832 president Jeff Traeger said in a statement the union now wants the company to halt production at the Brandon plant until at least Monday (Aug. 10), “until we have more results from the outstanding tests among our members at Maple Leaf.”

The union said Thursday that Toronto-based Maple Leaf so far “does not agree with the union’s position and has informed the union that they will be remaining open and continuing with production as usual.”

The Manitoba Co-operator on Thursday quoted a Maple Leaf representative as saying the company will “continue to operate our Brandon plant as long as we believe we can provide an environment that will protect the safety of our people while working.”

Manitoba health officials on Thursday reported 18 new cases of COVID-19 in the province’s western Prairie Mountain Health Region, within a cluster in Brandon that’s now up to 28 cases.

However, as the Co-operator noted Thursday, provincial officials are currently connecting that cluster to a travel-related case, not to community or workplace transmission.

The Brandon plant is the largest hog slaughter facility in Manitoba, which with over 600 farms is Canada’s biggest hog-producing province in terms of pigs marketed.

The plant is also the main supplier of fresh pork for Maple Leaf’s other Canadian processing facilities and exports.

The company, in its second-quarter financials last Thursday, chalked up its gross costs related to COVID-19 at about $19 million for Q2 alone, citing higher labour costs plus additional personal protective equipment, sanitation and “other expenses” associated with the pandemic.

The company’s designation as an essential service “does mitigate some of the more significant financial and operational impacts experienced in many other industries,” Maple Leaf said.

It also noted the potential remains for “short-term processing shutdowns required to protect the health and safety of plant personnel.”

Year-to-date, the company has booked a nine per cent increase in meat sales for 2020 over the year-earlier period last year, due in part to “an increase in hogs processed” as well as growth in exports to “Asian markets” and strong sales volumes in its retail channels.

Those retail volumes showed up particularly in a COVID-related surge in late March, though a COVID-related cut in foodservice demand has offset that surge, the company reported. — Glacier FarmMedia Network

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