Workers' Key Role in Curbing the Spread of COVID-19

Meat Packing Workers Achieve Closure of Unsafe Olymel Plant

Olymel abruptly announced on February 15 that its pork processing plant in Red Deer, Alberta would close for an indefinite shutdown, ten days after the union informed Olymel that the workers overwhelmingly declared in a survey that they considered the plant was unsafe and should be closed. During these 10 days the number of active cases in the plant more than doubled. 

Olymel has not responded to the demand presented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 for full compensation for all the workers. Instead it says it will "help" the workers access available resources. This is unacceptable.

The serious outbreak at Olymel began around January 20 and a young worker, Darwin Doloque, tragically died on January 28. Alberta Health confirmed 192 active cases, and 326 total confirmed cases linked to the plant, as of February 15. The Mayor of Red Deer expressed her grave concern as COVID-19 cases rose in the city but the company did not heed this either. Alberta Health Services (AHS) stated on February 8, "Olymel has robust processes in place to limit the spread of illness within their facility and has strict protocols in place regarding physical distancing, PPE, disinfection and other safety measures to support physical distancing of staff." Three days later AHS wrote a confidential letter to Olymel stating that testing revealed that one in five workers were likely positive for COVID-19. Olymel announced the shutdown soon after the letter became public.

Had AHS spoken to the workers, it would have confirmed that their concerns were based on the actual situation and required immediate action. Workers said the cafeteria, where workers must remove their masks in order to eat, was very congested. Why is it that restaurants are shuttered or required to implement social distancing but this does not apply to workplaces? Workers also explained that they were sent back to work after testing, only to be informed later of a positive test. And as the union pointed out, the PPE and Plexiglass is not enough once a serious outbreak is raging in a plant where 1,850 workers work in close proximity.

Both AHS and the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) have brought their offices into disrepute by blaming the workers instead of taking up their social responsibility. The CMOH suggested it was some "off-site activities" that were responsible for the growing number of cases, while AHS encouraged Olymel to threaten workers with fines, discipline and possible termination for any infractions of public health requirements.

The situation at Olymel confirms that it is the collective actions of the workers speaking out in their own name and demanding that their rights to a safe workplace and to refuse unsafe work be upheld that are decisive. The state agencies like AHS and Occupational Health and Safety have become captive to the global oligarchs and their interests and drive for maximum profit. It is the workers who are standing up to protect their collectives, their families and their community and they must have the final say in what constitutes safe work, and to exercise this right without loss of pay or livelihood.

(Photos: WF, UFCW)

This article was published in

Volume 8 - February 19, 2021 - No. 8

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