As Trump moves to keep meat-processing plants open, Trudeau stresses workers’ safety

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wouldn’t say today whether his government would follow the lead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and order meat-processing plants to stay open during the pandemic — but stressed that workers’ safety is a priority.

Yesterday, in response to concerns about food shortages and supply chain disruptions, Trump issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing plants to continue operating.

The world’s biggest meat companies — including Smithfield Foods Inc., Cargill Inc., JBS USA and Tyson — have temporarily shuttered operations at about 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America after workers fell ill with COVID-19.

In Canada, the Cargill Inc. meat-processing plant near High River, Alta, is now the scene of the country’s largest single site outbreak. Alberta public health officials have counted 1,167 cases linked to the plant, 759 of them plant workers.

The Cargill plant and the JBS plant in southern Alberta — where dozens more workers have tested positive — together supply about two-thirds of Canada’s beef.

When asked if he’d follow Trump’s lead and force plants to stay open, Trudeau said his government is watching the industry closely.

WATCH | Trudeau questioned about meat packing plants and safety of the food supply

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters on Wednesday 2:56

“We’re watching with interest and concern some of the issues facing meat producers and the supply chain across the agricultural industry,” he told reporters during his daily briefing this morning.

“We need to make sure that those supply chains can keep functioning, but we also need to make sure that the people who work in those supply chains —  and will continue to need to work in difficult circumstances over the coming weeks and months as we continue to battle COVID-19 — are kept safe.”

This morning, McDonald’s Canada — which prominently mentions its use of Canadian beef in its advertising — announced it will start importing meat as Canada’s beef supply chain struggles to meet current demand.

The company said in a statement that its change in policy is due to limited processing capacity at Canadian suppliers, such as the Cargill plant.

Concerns about TFWs’ safety

The meat supply issue is reinforcing concerns about the living conditions of temporary foreign workers.

A large number of the workers at the Cargill facility are Filipino; some are temporary foreign workers and others are permanent residents.

Earlier this week, at least 40 workers at a Kent Bridge, Ont. greenhouse tested positive for COVID-19. 

Authorities say most of the employees at Greenhill Produce who have tested positive for the disease are migrant workers, but most have been in Canada from four months to a year, or more.

Greenhill Produce operations manager Justin Geertsema said just under half of his company’s workforce are in self-isolation due to COVID-19.

“We’re not sure what the next few weeks will look like,” he said. “It’ll be difficult for everybody, but all we know is that we just have such an amazing team here.”

Any temporary foreign worker arriving in Canada has to self-isolate for two weeks, but industry critics and labour groups have raised concerns about the tight quarters most migrants workers live in while in Canada.

“Sadly, I think this virus has pointed out some of the areas that we need to do better at,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam during a news briefing on Wednesday.

“Workplaces need to have good plans if they are to continue, or if they are to think about re-opening according to public health advice.”

Watch: Dr. Theresa Tam on workplace pandemic plans

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the COVID-19 virus has pointed out deficiencies in workplaces’ health and safety practices. 1:38

Tam said the pandemic has focused attention on how Canada treats vulnerable people such as workers in close-quarters settings, seniors in long-term care homes and the homeless.

“I think in line with this next phase, we need to do better in each of those settings,” she said. 

Cargill announced a temporary shut down of its beef plant near High River where officials in the area are dealing with over 400 cases of COVID-19 linked to the plant, including the death of a worker, in High River, Alta., Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The federal government has set aside $50 million to help farmers who rely on temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Employers are eligible for $1,500 per foreign worker to help cover the costs of complying with a mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival in Canada. 

“We are working very closely with the agriculture industry to ensure that people get good, healthy food, particularly as we embark upon the summer [when] there will be a need and an ability to get lots of fresh vegetables and produce from across the country,” said Trudeau on Wednesday.

“We need to continue to stay vigilant because of the large disruptions across many different sectors in our country including, obviously, agriculture.”

The issue is expected to be a topic of discussion later this evening when Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau appears in front of a parliamentary committee.

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