AFL and Alberta NDP call for public inquiry into COVID-19 at meat plants

AFL and Alberta NDP call for public inquiry into COVID-19 at meat plants
Apr 01, 2021

Minister Dreeshen should lose his job, the Alberta Federation of Labour said

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer

An Alberta organization is calling for a public inquiry and for the province’s ministers of agriculture and labour to lose their jobs because of how the provincial government handled COVID-19 in meatpacking facilities.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen and Labour Minister Jason Copping should be fired because they purposely misled Cargill workers about working conditions inside the High River, Alta. plant, the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) says.

The AFL gained access to government documents through freedom of information, the group said in a March 30 release.

Among the findings, the documents reveal that:

  • Minister Dreeshen told Cargill workers the plant was safe two hours after receiving an email from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw about two federal meat inspectors contracting coronavirus while working at the plant.
  • Minister Dreeshen changed internal documents to place blame on employees rather than the conditions at the plant.

“The Kenney government’s disastrous handling of COVID-19 in Alberta’s meatpacking plants shows just how dangerous it can be when a government does not put workers first,” Gil McGowan, president of the AFL, said in a statement. “Now that we’re facing a third wave of the pandemic, it's more important than ever to expose and correct this government's deeply flawed approach to COVID-related workplace health and safety.”

In addition, CBC obtained a recording of an audio call between government representatives and Cargill workers from April 18, 2020.

The materials show a priority on keeping the plant open versus keeping workers safe.

“If you look at this evidence in its totality, it is clear that keeping the plant open is more important than worker safety,” Sean Tucker, a University of Regina professor of occupational health and safety, who has seen the documents, told CBC. "I think there is enough evidence to show that there was a regulatory breakdown in the case of Cargill's High River, Alberta plant, that people knew about problems but were not empowered to share them with workers."

Alberta’s official opposition is also asking for a public inquiry into the situation.

The provincial government willingly put people at risk, said Rachel Notley, leader of the Alberta NDP.

“Thousands of people got sick. Two workers died. This government was profoundly irresponsible with the lives of these workers and their right to know about safety risks in their workplace,” she said in a March 30 statement. “It’s clear we need a full public inquiry into this outbreak and the outbreaks at meat plants across Alberta.”

Minister Dreeshen's office responded to the situation.

The government followed guidelines from medical officials, secured proper protection equipment and ensured safety was a top priority.

Dr. Hinshaw "at no time, recommended the closure of food processing plants," Justin Laurence, Minister Dreeshen's press secretary, told in an email. "Alberta’s government ensured that PPE was available for essential workers and strived to both protect workers and the food security of Alberta families during a global pandemic.

We followed a careful distribution protocol to ensure those at the highest risk of exposure to COVID-19 received PPE. Any requests at meat plants were prioritized as an essential food services category and were fulfilled without impacting higher priority frontline services supporting Alberta’s most vulnerable."

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