By Kalinowski, Tim on May 11, 2020.
The Alberta Federation of Labour says the Kenney government is putting lives at risk by not supporting the health and safety of workers in sectors deemed “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly at meat processing plants across the province like Cargill High River, JBS Brooks, Olymel in Red Deer and Lilydale in Edmonton where outbreaks have all been reported.
“We understand that during a pandemic it is appropriate for the government to label some workplaces as essential, but that doesn’t mean the workers in those workplaces should be treated as expendable,” says AFL president Gil McGowan. “Unfortunately, we think that is what is happening with this government.”
McGowan blames the Kenney government’s failures in this respect on what he calls a “willful ideological blindspot” those in the governing United Conservative Party seem to have.
“I would say the Kenney government has a huge blindspot when it comes to workplace health and safety,” states McGowan. “And that blindspot is undermining efforts to save lives and stop the spread of the coronavirus. It’s no secret the UCP is a business-focused government. That was also true with previous conservative governments in this province. But the UCP, unlike their conservative predecessors, is almost pathological in its unwillingness to consider anything proposed or even influenced by workers or unions.
“They don’t respect us. They don’t meet with us. And that’s a problem in the current context because most modern and effective health and safety policies would fall into the category of those influenced by workers and unions.”
McGowan says the government’s blindspot in this respect will cost people their incomes, their health and potentially even their lives as essential workers are continually put at risk of being infected by COVID-19.
“The precautionary principle says when lives are on the line, you err on the side of caution,” he states. “You act quickly as opposed to waiting for more information. You don’t allow other competing interests to get in the way of safety. Interests like production and profits. The fact the UCP did not launch proactive inspections of workplaces deemed essential at the beginning of the process a month ago, and the fact they haven’t fined people, they haven’t shut down workplaces proactively – like in B.C. they closed down a meat packing plant when there were literally two positive cases.
“In Alberta, with the Cargill plant, there were 20 cases, and then there were 30 cases, 40, 50, and then there were 200, and then 300, and they still didn’t close down the plant. It boggles my mind.”
McGowan has heard the arguments that the impacts of continuing to keep the economy closed could be far more serious in the long run if companies and businesses can’t recover after an extended period of lockdown. McGowan says if the economy is opened too quickly, and more workers get sick or die, that will be far more devastating as it will reverse any positive progress made in limiting the effects of the pandemic to date.
“The story of Alberta’s response to the coronavirus is one of success on one level, at least in terms of how successful we have been in stopping the spread of the virus in the broader community,” he says. “But it is also a story of failure in a growing number of workplaces. Cargill is just the biggest example. I can tell you it is just the tip of the iceberg. Quick action now to stop the spread of the virus in workplaces will allow us to open up the economy quicker, and that will limit the economic damage to the broader economy.”
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