April 14, 2020

How the Right to Health Care Poses
Itself During the Pandemic

Temporary Closure of Olymel's Agri-Food Yamachiche Plant in Quebec
• Workers Must Have the Final Say in Decisions That Affect Their
- Normand Chouinard

What Healthcare Professionals Have to Say
• Nurses Working Both Sides of the Border Speak for
- Enver Villamizar
Nova Scotia Health Care Workers Demand Assurances on Safety Equipment
BC Health Care Workers Demand Broader Support

Education Workers Support Health Care Workers

Temporary Closure of Olymel's Agri-Food Yamachiche Plant in Quebec

Workers Must Have the Final Say in Decisions
That Affect Their Health

The danger that the COVID-19 outbreak could spread to large industrial production centres considered essential has already become a reality for several agri-food plants. This is the case at Olymel's Quebec plants in Yamachiche; Saint-Esprit; F. Ménard in Ange Gardien, which specializes in large-scale pork slaughter; Exceldor in Saint-Bruno, which specializes in the further processing of poultry products; and Viande du Breton in Rivière-du-Loup, a pork slaughterhouse, to name but a few. In the case of the Yamachiche plant, where close to 1,000 people work, it is reported that more than 100 people tested positive for COVID-19 in just a few days. The company's senior management was forced to cease operations as soon as the outbreak began at the plant, four days after the first employee tested positive on March 25. The company spokesperson maintains that all public health recommendations regarding safety procedures on the plant's production lines were followed to the letter. Olymel also defends itself by claiming that its employees may have contracted the virus outside the plant. The plant is expected to gradually resume operations on April 14, under public health supervision, after completing a 15-day quarantine.

The union that represents the workers, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1991P, and its chief shop steward Janick Vallières, say that many more precautions could have been taken. The union maintains that the company is only following the minimum recommendations by the public health department. The union executive had proposed additional measures to improve social distancing and health measures, but found management's response disappointing. Among other measures, the union proposed to stop the shuttle transporting workers from Montreal to the plant. In these large agri-food production plants, which are generally located in the regions, a large proportion of the workers come from the major centres, particularly Montreal and Quebec City. These workers are brought to the plants on buses provided by the company. These buses are crowded and do not allow for proper social distancing. The union therefore proposed to stop this service to avoid community transmission within the plant.

The union also proposed extending production to seven days. "Usually we produce on two shifts over five days. We proposed to put 500 workers from Monday to Thursday and 500 workers from Friday to Sunday. By spreading production over seven days, we would have had fewer workers at the same time to allow for social distancing. Our request was not taken into account," said Vallières.

The union also deplores the company's lack of transparency. According to shop steward Vallières, the bond of trust has been broken and he would have liked more information on the infected people, their work department and their shift, so that he could have conducted proper investigations.

Reached by Workers' Forum, Martin Maurice, president of the Olymel workers' union in Vallée Jonction (affiliated with the CSN) agrees. His union has also proposed several social distancing measures on the production lines which the company has done nothing about. The union had also proposed to take the temperature of each employee, a request also ignored by Olymel. It has also proposed specific measures for the plant's cafeterias and corridors and many other social distancing measures. Maurice says he is in constant contact with regional public health and the plant's senior management, but he regrets that despite well-written protocols, the measures are poorly applied or not applied at all. The union's position is clear, says Martin -- the workers want to continue production, but only as long as the company's management applies to the letter the strict measures that are necessary to guarantee their safety.

The company's management and its spokesperson believe they have done everything necessary to contain the outbreak. "When we saw that we had nine cases, we closed the plant with the cooperation of public health. We are experiencing a major health crisis," said the company spokesperson. Asked about other cases of COVID-19 in Olymel's plants, including the newly acquired F. Ménard plant in Ange Gardien in the Granby region, the spokesperson said that "the company will continue to evaluate the situation on a daily basis and will take other measures if the situation requires it." He also said that Olymel has hired two medical experts to guide it in its decisions and help it better cope with the pandemic.

The numerous cases of COVID-19 infections in major food production centres have forced the Quebec government's Ministry of Health and Social Services to respond. A specific protocol for these industries was put forward. In this regard, the Olymel spokesman said that "we have implemented new protocols for slaughterhouses in collaboration with the National Institute of Public Health. We are going to enforce the two-metre distancing rule whenever possible. Mitigation measures are being taken in accordance with public health, such as the installation of separators and the wearing of helmets with visors."

This new protocol is being implemented by public health in collaboration with Olymel management, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Quebec's Labour Standards, Pay Equity, and Workplace Health and Safety Board (CNESST) and UFCW.

This situation highlights the importance of giving all necessary space for action to workers directly involved in production, in this case agri-food production. The measures that are necessary to continue operations must come from where the work is done, that is, the factory floor. The protocols that must be put in have to meet the needs of the workers to work safely. Public health experts and other government agencies, as well as company management, can only draw conclusions by being in constant contact with workers directly on the production line. Every effort must be made to facilitate these exchanges. Health and safety committees exist to ensure that workers can communicate their needs and demands directly to public health officials. Workers are continuing production in conditions of a pandemic and it is their direct experience that is needed to design a protocol to prevent the spread of the virus and allow the continuation of production and plant operations.

The Yamachiche is plant is expected to reopen on April 14 in three stages. The first step is to bring in 100 employees for slaughtering of livestock. The second step is to bring the remaining employees into the meat cutting department on April 15. The third step is to assess the possible return of production workers from Montreal. However, the workers' experience is that if the matter is reduced to putting a well-written protocol on a bulletin board or elsewhere on the plant floor, nothing will be settled and everything will have to start all over again.

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What Healthcare Professionals Have to Say

Nurses Working Both Sides of the Border
Speak for Themselves

There has been a lot of talk between the leaders of Canada and the United States over the movement of goods and people in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump has withheld medical supplies and Trudeau and other elected leaders in Canada have openly or indirectly threatened to limit the travel of Canadian health care workers currently working in U.S. border towns. The issue is presented as a fight between "Making America great again" and standing up for Canada. As one nurse living in Windsor and working in Michigan put it when she was interviewed on CBC radio, "Two wrongs don't make a right."[1]

Nurse Nikki Hillis-Walters has been working in hospitals in Windsor, Ontario and Detroit Michigan. She was told that she had to choose where to work as the Ontario hospitals don't want COVID-19 being brought across the border into Ontario hospitals. The matter is presented as protecting Canada. However, many health care workers from Canada work in the U.S. due to the lack of work and investment in health care in Canada. In this case Hillis-Walters decided to give up her job in Windsor, as she knew it could be filled, and work in Detroit where the need was the greatest. Asked why she made this choice she said "It's the nursy feeling that you kind of need to go to that call to action." Later she added, "I think we all have to think of ourselves as kind of global citizens right now. Not necessarily like I'm Canadian, you're American." She also discussed the support she is receiving from the community in Detroit for her contributions.

In this situation nurses are giving expression to the notion that we are one humanity fighting for the rights of all, in this case the right to health care. Governments in Windsor and other border towns cannot manage this crisis and slow the spread without ensuring that health care workers' rights are affirmed irrespective of where they work. Those working in the U.S. require security and protection so that they can make their contribution and not worry about making the situation worse by bringing the virus back to their families and communities. They are not vectors, they are human beings with rights.

This means first and foremost that health care workers' well-being must be looked after. They require lodging and food so that they do not have to go out into the community after working in infected environments. They require proper equipment and protections and a say over their wages and working conditions so they can do their job to the best of their ability. In many U.S. border states nurses and other health care workers are not unionized and are vulnerable to being discarded when they become ill or injured or if they speak out. The Canadian government must advocate for these health care workers instead of using the vital service they provide as a bargaining chip.


1. "Forced to pick a side, this Canadian nurse decided to fight COVID-19 in the U.S.," As It Happens, April 8, 2020  

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Nova Scotia Health Care Workers Demand Assurances on Safety Equipment

Nova Scotia's health care Council of Unions, the five unions representing health care workers providing care during the COVID-19 pandemic, are calling on government and employers to sign onto a safety protocol that ensures frontline workers are protected and supported during this unprecedented time.[1]

In a press release dated April 3, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) reports that the NSGEU, the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Nova Scotia, Unifor and the International Union of Operating Engineers (which has paramedics among its members) have produced a joint communique that puts forward five standards for front-line health care workers and the required personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with suspected, presumed or confirmed COVID-19 patients. It states in part:

"1. All health care workers who are within two metres of suspected, presumed or confirmed COVID19 patients shall have access to appropriate PPE. This will include access to; surgical/procedure masks, fit tested NIOSH-approved [the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] N-95 respirators, gloves, face shields with side protection (or goggles), impermeable or, at least, fluid resistant gowns. The employers commit to provide all health care workers with information on safe utilization of all PPEs and employees shall be appropriately trained to safely don and doff all of these supplies. There is not a scientific consensus on the appropriate level of respiratory protection for health care workers. While new research emerges daily there are conflicting reports of airborne transmission so, using a precautionary approach, the best protection would be provided by an N95 respirator. [...]

"2. A point-of-care risk assessment (PCRA) must be performed before every patient interaction. The PCRA should include the frequency and probability of routine or emergent AGMP being required. If a health care worker determines, on reasonable grounds, that specific PPE is required, they shall have access to the appropriate PPE based on their PCRA, and this will not be unreasonably denied by their employer, or they shall be deployed to another area.

"3. Contact and droplet precautions must be used by health care workers for all interactions with suspected, presumed or confirmed COVID-19 patients. Contact and droplet precautions includes gloves, face shields or goggles, gowns, and surgical/procedure masks.

"4. N95 respirators must be used by all heath care workers in the room where AGMPs [aerosol-generating medical procedures] are being performed, are frequent or probable, or with any intubated patients [these procedures include manual ventilation, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, high frequency oscillatory ventilation and others -- WF Note.]. [...]

"5. The employers and unions that prepared this communication will assess the available supply of PPEs on an ongoing basis. The employers commit to continue to explore all available avenues to obtain and maintain a sufficient supply. In the event that the supply of PPEs reach a point where current supplies are anticipated to last for only 30 days (i.e. a shortage), or where utilization rates indicate that a shortage will occur, the employers will be responsible for developing contingency plans in consultation with the unions and applicable Joint Worksite Health and Safety Committees to ensure the safety of health care workers."

NSGEU President Jason MacLean explained to Workers' Forum why such a protocol is necessary and why it must be signed by the government and the employers.

"We have not been able to have fruitful conversations with the Premier, or the Chief Medical Officer of Health or the Department of Health, and we want to make sure they are on the same page as us because we believe we need to protect health care workers so they are there for us if we need them," he said. "Not only that, but the government is looking for people to volunteer in other places and it is actively reaching out to the public to try and hire more health care providers, but they are not going to attract anybody if they do not have the proper PPE in place. We don't believe that what they are currently going by, which is the bare minimum, is enough. We want them to sign on and agree that people can make a judgement call if they need to have proper PPE. That statement is what we wholeheartedly believe and our request is that the government participate in it," he added.


1. To read the Joint Statement of the five health care unions, click here.

(Photo: Canadian Federation of Nurses)

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BC Health Care Workers Demand Broader Support

In British Columbia, some measures have been taken to ensure sufficient staffing for long-term care facilities, a sector hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 26, measures were initiated to limit workers in long-term care work to only one job site, while their positions and benefits at other job sites prior to this restriction are protected. However, long-term care workers represent only a portion of the health care workers who are impacted by the pandemic and thousands of others still need support.

The Hospital Employees' Union (HEU) represents the majority of workers, excluding technicians, nurses and doctors, in hospitals throughout the province, both those who work for the Health Authorities and those who work for the multinationals which contract for housekeeping and food services throughout most of the province. On April 4, the union sent a letter to the Health Employers Association of BC (HEABC) outlining the supports that are urgently needed for health care workers to be able to carry out their responsibilities to the people of the province.

The letter reads in part:

"Our health care system has never experienced a crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic. And there has never been a time when it was more evident that it takes an entire team of health care workers to provide care and support to British Columbians. But this health crisis is also bringing many of the inequities in the treatment of workers across the system into sharp focus.

"This unprecedented public health challenge has exposed the fragmented nature of health care delivery in our province -- complicated service delivery and employment relationships within health authorities, and a myriad of non-HEABC operators and collective agreements among health authority contractors.

"It's a problem that's evolved over the last twenty years, and with these changes come deep inequities in the treatment of workers, with wages and benefits varying widely from site to site.

"And as we have all experienced over the last few weeks, mounting a coordinated health system response to the pandemic, especially in terms of allocating and redeploying workers, is extremely challenging under these circumstances.

"It's certainly contributed to the anxiety and confusion our members experience as they work on the front lines of the pandemic and prepare for what lies ahead. The world is changing for every health care worker.


"Workers are afraid of being exposed to the virus at work or bringing it home to their families.

"They face long hours at work only to face empty shelves at the grocery store at the end of their shift.

"They often can't leave their unit or work area to get food on their breaks, or can't bring food to work because there's nowhere to store it.

"They're told to bring a change of clothes to work and take their work clothes home in a sealed bag to launder. But in many cases the laundry facility in their apartment building has been closed for public health reasons and there is no open laundromat in their neighborhood.

"Transportation has become more challenging and many have had to make alternate arrangements to get to work, or will face additional transportation costs when single site orders come into place.

"Workers may also need to find alternate shelter, and make alternate child and elder care arrangements.

"HEU members understand that they are critical to helping patients, residents and other workers stay safe in this crisis. They are showing great resilience in the face of this pandemic.

"But many of these workers have had their wages, benefits, and working conditions decimated over the years of privatization, contracting out and rollbacks. The irony that they are suddenly critical to the effort to fight COVID-19 isn't lost on them -- nor is HEABC's decision to target a broad benefit solely to nurses.

"There are several ways in which health employers and government can provide material support to the workers who are getting us through this crisis:

- Provide enhanced meal allowances, such as those in the FBA [Facilities Bargaining Association] collective agreement, and provide them on every shift to every worker.

- Provide or increase uniform allowances so that workers can buy shoes and clothes. Provide meals for workers who can't leave their units during their shift.

- Address transportation costs for workers who need to travel further or take taxis.

- Implement a 'Health Care Worker COVID-19 Pandemic Support Allowance' which would support workers in addressing their particular needs.

"We believe that employers and government must provide supports to frontline-workers fighting this pandemic. Such supports need to be extended to all workers across health and community agencies, regardless of employer. One necessary step is levelling up sick leave provisions.

"There are other inequities that must be addressed. Hospital housekeepers are key to keeping our facilities virus free. Yet in our major hospitals they are paid less today than they were during the SARS crisis 17 years ago -- the result of privatization. Dietary workers are similarly paid substandard wages that are not sustainable."

Emergency measures are needed to ensure that the health and safety of all health care workers and their families are guaranteed in the conditions of the pandemic. Permanent measures will also be required to put an end to privatization and mistreatment of health care workers whose essential role has to be acknowledged with actions.

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 Education Workers Support Health Care Workers

The following call is posted on the Facebook page of Education is a Right Podcast:

Calling All Teachers, Education Workers and Students -- Join #EdforMed!

On Friday of each week in the spirit of #RedforEd, while we are in this pandemic, we encourage you to raise your voices for the right to health care, which means respecting the rights of those who provide it! We call it #EdforMed!

Call for governments to provide proper protective equipment, acceptable wages, safe working conditions and accommodations for all those on the frontline saving lives and keeping our economy going.

Whether they are working here or traveling daily to the U.S., our health care workers' rights must be affirmed by governments at all levels, not just in word but in deeds.

Let's show our pride as educators of the dedicated health care workers we have helped form. Our working conditions were their learning conditions as students, and now their working conditions are everyone's living conditions. Join in and make a statement!

What can you do?

- Share this post on social media.

- Use the hashtag #EdforMed

- Make the Med Apple your profile pic!

- Bang pots and pans at 7:00 pm or 7:30 pm to show your support.

- Drive to the nearest healthcare facility and honk, cheer and make noise for health care workers at their shift change. (Shift changes at hospitals are often 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm. If you can be at a facility in your car across the street or near the employee parking from 2:30 to 3:00 pm or 6:30 to 7:00 pm you will be able to salute those going in to start their shift and those ending it. )

- Empower yourself and come up with other ways and share them with us!

Photos and other images sent by education workers and their families to show their appreciation for health care workers and support for their fight for safe working conditions have been made into a video.  It can be viewed on the Education is a Right Podcast Facebook page here.

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