COVID-19 and essential workers at risk, some examples

Two classic cases, where private companies and weak government regulators have failed to protect workers from COVID-19 (largely immigrants, visible minorities or temporary workers), and the Ontario and Alberta governments only belatedly addressing risk in workplaces through vaccination of workers. Older stories, haven’t seen many updates:

Amazon Brampton Warehouse

An Amazon warehouse that was ordered to shut down last week due to a major COVID-19 outbreak is also being investigated for potential labour violations, the Ontario government said Monday.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Labour said the investigation was already underway when the local public health unit ordered thousands of workers at the Brampton, Ont., facility on Friday to isolate for two weeks,

“We continue to work closely with Peel Public Health and others to provide support, advice and enforcement as needed to ensure the health and safety of Ontario’s workers,” Harry Godfrey said in a statement.

Godfrey noted that penalties for labour violations could be as high as $1.5 million or imprisonment. He said the government would not hesitate to hold employers accountable if they fail to keep their employees safe.

Peel Region’s top doctor said the outbreak at the Amazon facility, which employs approximately 5,000 workers, began in October and has since been linked to more than 600 cases.

Dr. Lawrence Loh said nearly half of the cases were detected in the last few weeks, prompting the public health unit to issue a special order requiring the workers to self-isolate for two weeks starting March 13.

Workers were ordered to isolate until March 27 unless they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days and have already completed their isolation period for that infection.

Amazon Canada said workers would be paid during the 14-day quarantine, but it disputed the data being used to support the plant closure, pointing to a round of tests that recently came back with a positivity rate of less than one per cent. It has said it plans to appeal the decision.

Peel Public Health said the closure will give the company further time to consider additional operational changes that may help prevent outbreaks in future.

The Ministry of Labour said its inspectors had visited the site 12 times and issued eight orders since March 2020.

Gagandeep Kaur, an organizer with Brampton-based Warehouse Workers Centre that advocates for workers’ rights in the sector, said conditions had been getting worse in the facility for months. She said workers “were kind of surprised” that it took so long for public health to get involved and force the shutdown.

Kaur said people reported that safety precautions like physical distancing have been impossible to maintain inside, especially as workers rushed to meet strict productivity targets.

She said workers are now concerned that they will be asked to push themselves harder once they return from quarantine.

“They are not at home right now enjoying this two week vacation,” Kaur said by phone. “They are more worried that once they are back … management might put higher targets for them to reach.”

Kaur said the pressures of the warehouse workplace, where employees’ time on floor is constantly measured and tracked, created safety issues before the pandemic. Those challenges only increased with the viral threat that also coincided with more hiring, and greater demands as more people relied on the delivery service.

She said the company should use the two-week shutdown to implement changes at the plant such as further separating work stations and reducing performance targets as workers are dealing with the added stress of the pandemic.

“Amazon must use it wisely,” she said of the shutdown. “Maybe implementing those changes inside the facility that will make the work safer so that we don’t end up with this crisis again.”

Last month, labour inspectors carried out a “blitz” operation on the warehouses and distribution centres in Peel Region – a COVID-19 hot spot with a high number of outbreaks in workplaces.

About 200 inspections took place and 26 tickets were issued, according the Ministry of Labour.


Alberta Olymel meat packing

Slaughterhouses. Meat packing. Sick and dead employees. The pandemic has sharpened our vision about a lot of things.

Such as: the workers who are key to making sure Canadians have plenty of steaks, hamburger, and bacon on the menu have become about as disposable as paper plates. This became more than evident over the past month as hundreds of workers in yet another meat packing plant in Alberta became infected with COVID-19.

Three employees have died. The first to die was 35-year-old Darwin Doloque, a recent immigrant from the Philippines who was found dead in his home at the end of January. 

At that point it was clear that infection was spreading among the 1,850 women and men at the Olymel slaughterhouse and pork processing plant in Red Deer. And yet neither government nor public health officials moved to it shut down.

It was only in mid-February after public pressure from the Union of Food and Commercial Workers, which represents the employees, that Olymel management decided to shut down for two weeks. Workers were laid off without pay and advised to apply for Employment Insurance so the government could pick up the bill.

And lest you think Olymel is owned by a U.S. or Brazilian mega-meat packer, it is not. It is a division of Quebec-based Sollio Cooperative Group, Canada’s largest agriculture co-op, which last year reaped $8.1 billion in revenue. Besides being the biggest pork and poultry producer in Canada, Olymel exports to China, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Most of the workers at the Red Deer plant — midway between Calgary and Edmonton — are recent immigrants, refugees, or temporary foreign workers. They come from Sudan, Guatemala, the Philippines, Mexico, and Dominican Republic and usually don’t speak English. 

It’s the same story at most large slaughterhouses/meat packing plants because it is bloody, back breaking, and dangerous work that only people with limited employment options are willing to take. 

For most of us working at a job site where 45,000 hogs a week are killed is beyond imagination. But that is par for the course at the Olymel plant. Every week, the pigs just keep coming from hog farming operations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which need to keep those pigs moving if they are to be profitable. They do not want processing plants to close down because it hits them right on the bottom line. 

So workers are pushed to keep working even after a quarter of them have been infected with the coronavirus; even though the majority of those workers have jobs outside the plant and could spread the virus in the larger community.

The COVID-19 outbreak at Olymel and the subsequent inaction on the part of government, public health officials, and plant management could be better understood if we were in the beginning stages of the pandemic and those in charge were still trying to figure out what to do about workplace outbreaks.

But this is hardly the case. In Alberta alone during the past year we have seen serious outbreaks in eight meat packing facilities.

In April, the Cargill plant in High River (owned by a U.S. mega-meat packer) had a total of 950 cases among 2,000 employees, the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Canada. Three people died, dozens were hospitalized. 

In the U.S, 50,000 meat packing workers were infected, and about 250 died. Communities around those facilities had some of the highest infection rates in the country. 

This was all known long before the outbreak at Olymel. The U.S Congress has launched an investigation into how the meat packing industry responded to the pandemic.

In Alberta, both Rachel Notley, leader of the official opposition, and the Alberta Federation of Labour have called for a public inquiry into the Alberta government’s handling of the outbreak at the Olymel plant. 

A public inquiry takes time but given the repeated performance of government agencies and meat packing companies during the pandemic we need to know more about why so many people became infected and died so it won’t happen again. 

In the meantime Olymel is re-opening the Red Deer plant and calling back workers. Bacon anyone?


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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