March 3, 2021 - No. 13

More Deaths and Outbreaks Reported

Hold Governments to Account for Tragic Consequences of COVID-19

• Two More Olymel Workers Die
Demands of Olymel Workers at Pork Processing Plant in Red Deer, Alberta
President of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 Speaks About Olymel Outbreak

• Call to Liberate Detainees at Immigration Holding Centre in Laval, Quebec!
Detainees' Hunger Strike

Workplace Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Toronto


Two More Olymel Workers Die 

Alberta Health Services (AHS) reported on February 26 that two more workers from the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer have died from COVID-19.

Henry De Leon, 50, who had worked at Olymel for 15 years, died in hospital in February 24. AHS reported that another Olymel worker, a woman, died on February 21. It has released no further information on her. There have been at least 500 cases linked to the outbreak at Olymel.  Like Darwin Doloque who died on January 28 at age 35, De Leon came to Canada as a temporary foreign worker from the Dominican Republic 16 years ago and worked at the Olymel plant ever since. He is survived by his wife, also an Olymel worker, two grown children and two grandchildren.

Workers' Forum sends sincere condolences to the families, co-workers, and friends of those who have passed away.

In a statement on February 26 mourning the death of Henry De Leon, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 condemned the actions of the company and the Alberta government which failed to respond to the demands of the union and the Olymel workers for a timely temporary closure of the plant to stop the spread of the virus. "We meant it when we said that we didn't want this to turn into another Cargill," said Secretary Treasurer Richelle Stewart. "Our union has lived through this horror before. We know the early warning signs." The union reports that they are investigating the circumstances around the death of Henry De Leon.

Workers in well over 100 Alberta workplaces in the food industry, including grocery stores, have been infected with COVID-19. Five workers at meat packing plants in Alberta have now died. All of the workers who have died came to Canada as refugees, as immigrants or through the temporary foreign workers program. Michael Lee, a worker and union steward at a Calgary Superstore also died recently from COVID-19. Despite this terrible loss, governments continue to refuse to recognize COVID-19 as an occupational disease, continue to block workers and their organizations from establishing safe working conditions, and allow the oligarchs who have seized control of the sector to act with impunity.

The deaths and the company's refusal to implement specific measures demanded by the workers, based on their experience as to what is needed to stop the spread of the virus, makes their fight to have the final say over what constitutes safe working conditions even more urgent.

For months now, workers in the meat packing plants have been fighting non-stop to make sure that their workplaces are safe, are not making the workers sick with COVID-19 and are not putting their lives in danger. They are facing governments which defend the private monopolies when they impose conditions within the plants that cause harm to the workers and when they declare that working conditions are safe even though this is not the case. This is not acceptable and life itself is shows that governments must be helod to account for not doing their duty to society. 

Workers' Forum firmly supports the fight of the meat packing workers for their demands to be met and calls upon all workers to support it.

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Demands of Olymel Workers at Pork Processing Plant in Red Deer, Alberta

The union representing workers at the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer, Alberta reports that Olymel has announced a potential reopening of the plant on March 3. Workers succeeded in forcing the plant to close on February 17. Since then two more Olymel workers have died of COVID-19. 

The union responded to the company's announcement of the March 3 reopening in a letter posted on its website on March 1. Local President Thomas Hesse reports on the results of a survey that the union had conducted with 600 workers over the previous 24 hours which revealed:

"Over 75 per cent of respondents indicated that they are scared and/or nervous about returning to work; over 80 per cent of respondents are unsure if the Plant is now safe; 75 per cent of respondents indicated they do not fully trust Olymel to keep them safe; more than 50 per cent of respondents indicated they do not fully trust government officials to keep them safe; over 90 per cent of respondents feel the employer should compensate all Olymel employees for the temporary closure and introduce pandemic pay immediately; nearly 90 per cent of respondents indicated that they have struggled financially during the temporary closure."

The letter asserts that "we cannot agree that Olymel's Red Deer Plant has been made safe for our members, nor to a reopening of the Plant, until our list of action items has been fulfilled." The Union calls on the company and government health official to delay the reopening until the workers are certain that it is safe.

The Olymel workers are demanding specific changes be made including: Involving the workers in decisions about what is needed to make the workplace safe; refresher safety training for all employees before reopening; a joint agreement on what would trigger, in the case of future outbreaks, reduced production or closure of the plant; measures including staggered break times, improved air quality, reduced congestion in common areas, increased sanitation, designation of dedicated entrance and exit doors with touchless entry, more turnstiles, and improvements to lunchrooms to allow physical distancing. The demand is also that workers who do not accept an immediate recall should not be subject to any discipline.

(Photos: WF, SEIU)

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President of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 Speaks About Olymel Outbreak

United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 401 President Thomas Hesse spoke about the serious COVID-19 outbreak at the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer, Alberta in an interview  in early February on iHeart Radio. At the time of the interview a young Olymel worker had died and 315 workers had tested positive, but Olymel had refused to comply with the workers' demand for a temporary closure of the plant. Since the workers forced the company to close the plant on February 17 two more Olymel workers have died.

Hesse said that meat packing has been called the most difficult and dangerous work in the world.

"They are ramping up production and have hired 200 to 300 workers recently," Hesse said. "It is a box. People are standing side by side wielding razor sharp instruments. It is crowded and they have just added more bodies and more production to the box, and the box is only so big. Therefore, employees are bumping into each other, they are in very close proximity, and all the PPE in the world, all the Plexiglass shields in the world are not going to prevent a certain measure of social proximity." Hesse also explained that Olymel had failed to provide proper training for the new workers, particularly in matters of health and safety.

" ...We need to change the narrative around COVID-19," he said. "I am pretty tired of being told to wash my hands and keep my distance and wear a mask. I know those things. But if you walk into an office building, we would not get in the elevator if there were 10 people on the elevator. And so we've got these boxes, where people are bringing food to the tables of Canadians, that are left to self-regulate. There is no real penalty for an employer to be drunk on production and forget about their workers. And that is exactly what is happening. Every cow that is slaughtered, every pig that is slaughtered, every chicken that is slaughtered is a profit for the employer. So they move down the line and they crank up the line speed. People are buying food, grocery retailers are making a killing right now, the food is moving through all of the intersections of the production matrix, and we are forgetting about these people in these processing plants, about these workers, these human beings who are faceless and nameless," Hesse said.

"We need meaningful government regulation and constant inspection. COVID-19 is a moment by moment thing. Every minute, every surface matters," he said. Hesse gave the example of the JBS plant were there was no cleaning schedule for the microwaves used by hundreds of workers during their lunch break.

"These places need to be watched. There need to be government watchdogs. There need to be penalties if health and safety principles are not being adhered to, and the places should be shut down if there are outbreaks, the pause button should be hit, there should be a re-examination by experts, workers should be interviewed, and the places should shut down." Hesse explained that the length of shutdowns should depend on the circumstances and severity of the outbreak.

Hesse stated that neither the federal nor provincial governments have shown any leadership, but leave the industry to self-regulate, and that this must change. He concluded by stating that "No one wants to talk about the fact that [COVID-19] is an occupational illness. You hear this phrase "community transmission" but these workplaces are part of the community. In fact in and of themselves they are communities."

To listen to the interview, click here

(Photo: SEIU)

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Call to Liberate Detainees at Immigration
Holding Centre in Laval

Through a call to action issued on February 23, Solidarity Across Borders is demanding the immediate release of migrant detainees presently being held at Montreal's Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) Laval Immigration Holding Centre where there is a COVID-19 outbreak. It noted that as of that date, four cases had been confirmed and that one detainee had initiated an indefinite hunger strike.

Migrants are often detained if they lack identity documents or if the CBSA believes they may not show up for deportation. Last spring, the centre was the site of a courageous eight-day hunger strike which generated coast-to-coast support and resulted in the release of most of those detained at the time. Solidarity Across Borders reports that "Now, the migrant prison is filling up once again," and points out that the federal government's refusal to respond to the ongoing demand for Status For All and to implement a regularization program for all undocumented migrants "is the real reason these detainees' lives are now at risk.” It is estimated that between 12 and 15 migrants are currently detained at the Laval holding centre. Visits have been cancelled since March 16, 2020, limiting access to legal support and increasing the isolation of inmates.

Last November, the Trudeau government indicated that it wanted to implement alternatives to detention. "There are many systems that we will examine in the coming months and years to see if we can improve them," he told Le Devoir. This is the usual liberal claptrap to cover up lack of principles and of any intent to take action to end the criminalization of migrants, provide status for all and make sure the migrants are safe, especially in such a public health crisis.

Solidarity Across Borders reports that the COVID-19 positive detainees are being held in solitary confinement. "Kept in small cells with tiny windows, they are only allowed out to shower or to make phone calls. Some detainees report that their symptoms were not taken seriously, while others have received COVID-19 tests, but were not given the results -- leaving them in fear and uncertainty about their health." There is also a risk of further spreading the virus, as "guards continue to come and go from the institution."

The call comes within the context of rising cases at provincial and federal prisons across the country. "At Bordeaux Prison, around 125 prisoners have contracted COVID-19 and the entire prison has been locked down -- leaving prisoners confined to their cells for 23-24 hours a day, with no showers and little access to outside support," Solidarity Across Borders informs. The Ligue des droits et libertés, which recently denounced the "significant deterioration" of prison conditions in Quebec, supports the demand to liberate the detainees at the Laval Centre. "The Ligue remains very critical of the detention of migrants," said communications officer Elisabeth Dupuis.

Solitary confinement, notes Solidarity Across Borders, "has been widely denounced as a form of torture -- it is unacceptable that such measures are being used to contain the outbreak." The organization is calling for the immediate release of the detainees and asking Canadians to do what they can to help these vulnerable people.

Workers' Forum supports the call to liberate the detainees and put an end to detention of migrants and subjecting them to inhumane conditions which violate their human dignity and endanger their health.  Governments must be held to account for the tragic consequences of their actions and policies which violate the most fundamental human rights.

Solidarity Across Borders is calling on people to contact federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and other government officials as well as their local member of parliament to demand the detainees' immediate release.

For further information and a sample e-mail script and social media hashtag, click here

(Photos: WF, Solidarity Across Borders)

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Detainees' Hunger Strike

February 28, 2021. Car caravan supporting detainees at Laval Immigration Holding Centre

Solidarity Across Borders' website published  a statement from Marlon, one of the detainees at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre:
"I declared an unlimited hunger strike on Monday, February 15th, 2021; it has now been six days. I am doing this as a form of protest because my fundamental rights, such as my right to health, are being violated. I contracted COVID-19 at the Laval migrant prison because of being confined to small spaces and by being exposed to the personnel at the centre, who come and go and expose us detainees to the virus, and who do not respect sanitation measures, for example by removing their masks. Contracting COVID-19 went from being a risk to a reality for me, and now we are four people who have been infected. They have us isolated in solitary confinement, without care, and I believe that our lives are at risk because we do not have any way of protecting ourselves from the virus. Now that we know it is present in the centre there is no way that it will disappear. There is inadequate ventilation, inadequate hygiene in the rooms, which are dirty, and since we are in solitary confinement we do not even have a way of washing our clothes. All of this is leading me to fear for my life, and I am experiencing depression and trauma. I am hoping for a miracle from God that anyone who is listening will have pity on us and free us from this prison, which is needed to avoid the spread of this virus among the migrant detainees, leading to many potentially irreversible health consequences. Millions of people have died of this across the globe; who is to say that we won't be next? We are human beings with lives to live and dreams to fulfill. Please, respect our human rights."

On March 2, Solidarity Across Borders reported on Facebook that “Yesterday, on Monday March 1, 2021, a new group of detainees launched a hunger strike to demand their immediate release in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Laval migrant prison. The detainees are taking over the strike started on February 15, 2021 by Marlon, also detained in Laval. It's urgent that we all act now and do everything possible to support them.” 

( Solidarity Across Borders)

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Workplace Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Toronto

Since the second week of February Toronto Public Health has been publishing information about workplace outbreaks in the City of Toronto. The data is broken down by size of enterprise and the most recent data is from February 25. On that date there were 30 workplaces that employ 20 or more people that had active COVID-19 outbreaks or outbreaks that had been declared over within the preceding week. All had started in January or February. Most involved between two and ten cases.

Of the six workplaces with over 20 cases, four of the outbreaks had been resolved and two were ongoing: the outbreaks at Johnvince Foods (83 cases), Dimpflmeier Bakery (59 cases), Alumicor (21 cases) and Sky Window Technologies (20 cases) have been declared over; the outbreaks at Toronto Police College (35 cases) and DECIEM (24 cases) are still active.

Toronto Public Health reports that as of February 23 there had been 50 outbreaks in food processing facilities and 225 in the category of workplaces which includes offices, warehousing, shipping and distribution, construction and manufacturing.

The Toronto Star reported on February 16, at a time when there were large outbreaks at four food processing plants, that in most of the workplaces with outbreaks at that time workers did not have access to paid sick leave, including the unionized workers at Maple Leaf Foods and Belmont Meats which had outbreaks in January and February involving 26 and 96 workers respectively.

The list of workplaces does not include health care facilities such as hospitals and long-term care homes whose outbreaks are reported separately with no breakdown between workers and patients/residents.

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