Workers at Brandon’s Maple Leaf Foods plant say the company and provincial government are passing the blame onto them for spreading COVID-19 in the facility.
“We workers are crying for help,” they wrote in an open letter, circulated Monday by Migrante Manitoba, an advocacy group for migrants in the province.
The province has repeatedly said there is no evidence of workplace transmission of the novel coronavirus at the hog slaughter and processing facility.
In a press conference Monday, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said the cluster of cases didn’t originate in the plant and said the sick people just “happen to work” there.
“Public health and officials have said repeatedly that they have found no evidence of workplace transmission and the cases that have occurred among our team members appear to be linked to events and interactions within the community,” Janet Riley, vice-president of communications and public affairs for Maple Leaf Foods, said in an emailed statement.
Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832, the union representing the plant workers, says their members feel their cultural practices are being tagged by the company and province as higher-risk when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.
The thought seems to be that they’re going to church together or having picnics on the weekend, Traeger said.
“I don’t know that to be true. Our members are telling us that’s not true,” he said.
In the letter, the workers allege the plant revamped their locker rooms, which made them crowded and social distancing difficult. Traeger said the rooms were rearranged and the company tried to arrange workers in cohorts, but this caused confusion.
Workers also said provisions for social distancing are not available in bathrooms.
“The company’s response has been, ‘Well, they may not be six feet apart, but they’re all wearing masks; they’re all wearing gloves; some of them have face shields on,” Traeger said.
He added that he was not able to confirm reports that there was no hand sanitizer or place to wash hands in cafeterias. He said Maple Leaf has told him it provided hand washing supplies or sanitizer in all parts of the plant.
The company says it will continue to conduct daily health and temperature screenings and require masks and other personal protective equipment, along with other safety measures.
“We take the concerns raised in the letter today seriously. Because we are always seeking ways to improve, we welcome any constructive suggestions to strengthen the safety measures already in place,” Riley said.
Workers’ issues are compounded as the plant falls behind in production.
About 300 workers are in self-isolation, according to the union, while the plant made headlines last week after asking employees for overtime.
Traeger said workers have been asked to work overtime every day, and on Saturday between 450 and 500 workers were forced to work overtime to try to catch up.
The company has said the move is an attempt to prevent an animal welfare crisis, Traeger said.
Earlier this year, plant closures in both Eastern Canada and the U.S. led to a backlog of market-ready hogs and raised the threat of culls as barn space rapidly ran out. The disruption also sent markets spiraling. The hog sector reported significant price hits, including a dramatic fall in the weanling market.
“[Workers are] already freaked, panicked, scared to bring the disease home,” Traeger said. “They want to be there as little as they possibly can, and the employer is asking them for overtime every day.”
“I agree that animal welfare has to be taken into consideration. I just don’t think it should take precedent over human welfare,” he said.
On Monday, 74 workers had been confirmed to have COVID-19. Sixty-two cases were active, according to the union.
The same day, Roussin said there were 52 cases, 34 active. Traeger said he didn’t know where Roussin got those numbers and was concerned that the province may have incorrect data.
The union has maintained its call for the Maple Leaf plant to shut down until COVID-19 cases reach a more manageable level.
In the letter, workers also called for a two-week shutdown, site-wide testing, job security and wage protection while the facility is closed.
Maple Leaf Foods does not plan to shut down the plant, Riley said.
Check out next week’s edition of the Manitoba Co-operator for further coverage.