Safety concerns prompt call for pork plant closure

NDP, union and workers all say a short-term shutdown would be the best plan

NDP Opposition leader, Wab Kinew, continued to call for a short-term shutdown of Brandon’s Maple Leaf Foods, August 13, and for “surveillance testing” of employees against the novel coronavirus.

“Manitoba’s agri-food industry is successful only when Maple Leaf workers and the wider Westman community, are safe and healthy,” Kinew said in an emailed statement to the Co-operator.

“A short-term shutdown would give Maple Leaf the ability to do a deep clean of the plant, and will ensure workers stay healthy so that operations aren’t disrupted. Maple Leaf and its workers have called on the province to create a testing plan and we support that,” said Kinew.

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“Taken together, these actions will ensure the plant can continue to operate, and the producers who rely on it to get their goods to market do not suffer.”

In an August 12 press conference, Kinew told media workers and union representatives at the hog-processing plant were calling for all 2,000 workers to be tested for COVID-19 and for 600 at a time to be tested on a rotating basis thereafter.

The province has refused, saying this would strain testing capacity in the region, Kinew said.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832 had not responded to the Manitoba Co-operator’s request for confirmation at press time.

Maple Leaf previously told the Co-operator the plant had been deep cleaned over the August long weekend.

As of August 10, 23 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, the union said in a news release.

The union said its position had not changed — it continued to call for the plant to close long enough to get the situation under control.

Maple Leaf said 131 workers had tested negative for the virus, in a letter to the union August 10, and it was encouraging workers to get tested.

In the letter, vice-president of labour relations Dezi Singh said Public Health, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Workplace Safety and Health had toured the facility the previous week and that these departments didn’t give them any orders following the inspection.

“They saw no reason to stop operating the plant,” Singh said.

Singh says workers are required to wear face masks “at all times” and are requested to wear masks if carpooling. They’re required to complete a temperature test and health screening check. Singh says the plant has installed partitions and barriers where social distancing isn’t possible, among other safety measures.

However, an unnamed employee at the facility told the Winnipeg Free Press he feels “depressed and unsafe” on the job.

The man told a reporter washrooms, change rooms and break rooms can get crowded and not all workers wear masks when they should. He said the plant should close for two weeks so all workers can be tested.

About the author

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Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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