In 2007, food processors and associations gathered to discuss the threat of a flu pandemic and their readiness for it. Among challenges they listed were low-income workers who couldn’t afford to take preventive measures.
“This will contribute to the spread of disease,” says the report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
While low-wage, impoverished workers can’t be blamed for the spread of COVID-19 through Canada’s meat-processing facilities, outbreaks at these plants have highlighted how vulnerable many of these workers are.
Among Maple Leaf workers in Manitoba, if a worker tests positive for COVID-19 or must self-isolate, they can immediately be placed on short- term disability pay. This gives them two-thirds of their regular take-home pay, which the company topped up to 75 per cent of take-home pay, said Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW 832 which represents workers there.
Traeger said HyLife’s processing facility in Neepawa has the same pay policy. The Exceldor Co-operative facility in Blumenort refers employees who must self-isolate to a federal recovery benefits plan, said spokesperson Gabrielle Fallu.
The union added that workers who test positive can apply for short-term disability, use vacation time or banked overtime to cover their pay.
However, at Brandon many of these workers are immigrants originally brought to Canada through the temporary foreign worker program. In many households, both spouses work at the facility and adult children may also work there, said Traeger.
Many are also sending money home to elderly parents or family. They needed that 25 per cent, or more. Many were accustomed to working overtime to make ends meet.
“Members did express concern that they couldn’t afford to self-isolate,” said Traeger. “They’re absolutely afraid they would be told to self-isolate, and then the whole family would, and their entire income would be significantly reduced.”
In August, when Traeger told media the plant should shut down until cases were under control, half of the feedback he got from workers were people saying, “Why are you doing that? You are putting my income at risk.”
Workers need more options to cover lost wages, said the union representing Exceldor workers.
“This highlights a need for paid sick days to be a priority for workers to be brought in both during this pandemic and after,” said Bea Brusk, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 832.
The same sentiment was echoed in Australia.
“I believe the most underappreciated and least discussed risk is the role that financial incentives play in spreading the virus,” wrote Elliot Teperman, an analyst with FAIRR, a think-tank examining environmental, social and governance aspects of intensive livestock production.
“The U.S. experience presents many examples of workers who came to work with mild flu symptoms because they could not afford to take the time off,” said Teperman. He recommended pandemic leave should not be tied to sick leave, cover full-time and casual workers, and should apply to workers when the entire plant closes (to prevent workers seeking work elsewhere in the interim, he says, as did workers at one facility in Australia).