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Cargill Inc. is facing accusations at a Canadian hearing that it undermined union leaders trying to protect workers at an Alberta beef plant during one of the industry’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 is making its case as hearings continue this week with the Alberta Labour Relations Board, days after a police investigation into a COVID-19 death of a plant employee last May brought renewed attention to Cargill’s actions during last year’s outbreak at its High River facility. Hearings with the provincial agency started in the middle of last year.
“Our ability to be the voice of employees in the workplace was frustrated by the company in the midst of the outbreak,” Mark Wells, the union’s lawyer, said in a phone interview.
Cargill’s plant temporarily shut in April due to an outbreak and by May, nearly half of its 2,000 workers tested positive for the virus. The hearing revolves around an unfair labor practice complaint filed by the union against Minneapolis-based Cargill and Alberta’s government in May.
The dispute represents a broader fight between companies and unions on the level of protection at plants during the pandemic, which temporarily idled plants and created backlogs of livestock through the year. At least 1,375 meatpacking and food processing plants and 385 farms and production facilities in the U.S. have had confirmed COVID-19 cases, Food & Environment Reporting Network data to Jan. 14 show. At least 82,168 workers tested positive for the virus and 357 have died.
The union alleges that Cargill interfered with union efforts to advocate for workers at the plant. The union’s complaint also said the company tried to “ensure workers fear for their employment, attend work and not exercise their right to a safe and healthy workplace.” The UFCW seeks 13 remedies including an order for Cargill to discuss health and safety issues regularly with the union.
Cargill declined to comment as the case is ongoing.
Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety responded to complaints about the Cargill plant with work site inspections and “no non-compliances were noted,” said Alberta Labour and Immigration Press Secretary Adrienne South in an email, adding the investigation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating a Jan. 8 complaint by the family of Benito Quesada, a Cargill High River employee who died from Covid-19 last May. A Cargill spokesman said he hasn’t seen the complaint and hasn’t been contacted by police.