As Canadians brace for a COVID-19 vaccine shortage, it remains unclear when temporary foreign workers – thousands of whom are employed in meat-packing plants – will receive it.
On Jan. 15, Canada’s minister responsible for vaccine procurement, Anita Anand, said the country’s supply of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine was experiencing a temporary delay because the company was taking time to scale up its production capacity.
“This expansion work means that Pfizer is temporarily reducing deliveries to all countries receiving vaccine manufactured at its European facility – and that includes Canada,” said Anand.
The delay isn’t expected to impact Canada’s long-term vaccination timeline, which aims to have everyone who wishes to be vaccinated by September. A little less than 400,000 doses have been received in Canada so far.
Close to two million more doses were originally expected to arrive in February, but that is no longer guaranteed.
Provinces are responsible for rolling out the vaccines at their own discretion, based on guidelines provided by the federal government.
According to those guidelines, people who are a high risk of dying from the virus or are “most likely to transmit COVID-19 to those at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 and workers essential to maintaining the COVID-19 response” should be prioritized.
To date, there is no indication temporary foreign workers or people employed in meat-packing facilities have received the vaccine anywhere in Canada.
There also appears to be few plans in place from governments to ensure they receive the vaccine.
Hundreds of employees at meat-packing plants and temporary foreign workers have tested positive for COVID-19, causing temporary shutdowns at some facilities.
Manitoba and Alberta didn’t respond to questions directly asking about their plans to provide vaccines to temporary foreign workers; but with limited supplies, provinces are focusing on immunizing health-care workers.
Details on what the second phase of those provinces’ vaccine rollout plan will look like are not available.
Saskatchewan’s government said in a statement that it is using the federal recommendations to determine who gets priority for a vaccine, but offered no specific plans for how temporary foreign workers would be vaccinated.
“Saskatchewan’s vaccine delivery plans for the first phase to focus on immunizing priority populations who are at a higher risk of exposure to the virus or more at risk of serious illness — health-care workers, elderly residents in care homes, seniors over 80 and residents in northern remote communities. Immunization will occur as vaccine is delivered to the province.”
Quebec’s preliminary proposed order of priority groups for a vaccine lists 10 steps, but none speak specifically to temporary foreign workers. The province’s first three phases focus on vulnerable people in long-term care homes and health-care workers.
They then plan on vaccinating people in isolated communities, elderly people and younger adults with chronic diseases before vaccinating the remaining population.
British Columbia has details for its first two phases of a vaccine rollout, but neither addresses when temporary foreign workers will receive their doses. The province’s second phase, which includes vaccines for people who are homeless or in a correctional facility, is expected to run from February to March.
Ontario has three phased approaches for its vaccine rollout. The second phase of that province’s rollout plan will give vaccines to front-line essential workers, including those in the food-processing industry. That tranche of people is expected to be included in a mass delivery of vaccines taking place from March to July.
Near the end of 2020, the Canadian Meat Council (CMC) said essential meat workers need to be a priority group of workers to receive the vaccine.
“We are urging the government to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccination for those working in the meat industry, following first responders, health-care workers, those in long-term care facilities and other front-line workers,” said Chris White, president of the Canadian Meat Council (CMC) in a statement. “Our efforts are working, but access to vaccines remains the most critical tool to protect this critical workforce and ensure that Canadians can always find meat on the shelves at their grocery store.”
CMC was joined by 13 other associations supporting agri-food workers being a priority to get vaccinated.
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents thousands of front-line workers, offered a similar sentiment.
The group said in December that after health-care employees, “workers in the food retail and manufacturing, meat-processing, long-term care and home-care, and security industries should be considered priority recipients as part of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.”
In the United States, meat-packing and poultry-processing workers are expected to be next in line for vaccines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advisory committee’s guidelines.
Those recommendations differ from Canada’s in that they place meat-packing workers ahead of some senior citizens and younger Americans with medical conditions that make them a high risk of infection.
But like Canada, the federal government is only providing guidelines and U.S. states will establish their own prioritization plans.
A Chicago-based report released in January by a group of labour rights groups argues workers in food distribution, production, and logistics employed by temporary staffing agencies or subcontractors should be prioritized for early access to the vaccine, alongside other food system workers.
Advocates for the report say ensuring these workers can access the vaccine is an issue of racial justice, because most of the workers they are speaking about are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC).