Toronto – April 27, 2015 – In the wake of Canada’s latest Avian Flu outbreak – this time in Ontario – the country’s largest poultry workers’ union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada), is calling on federal and provincial governments to introduce specific protections for front-line worker safety and to ensure that poultry workers are an integral part in the planning of any and all programs, regulations and strategies to prevent future outbreaks of the deadly virus.
The recent outbreak in Ontario comes on the heels of another outbreak that took place just five months ago in B.C.
Specifically, UFCW Canada is calling on governments in Canada to take similar measures that were taken more than a decade ago in the United States, where initiatives were put in place to better identify and prevent outbreak risks by better protecting front-line workers and involving them as key participants in the production chain.
“There are more than 14,000 people working in poultry processing facilities across Canada, processing millions pounds of poultry every week, and in the event of Avian Flu, we must have a plan to protect these workers, and the impact on their families and communities,” says Paul Meinema, the national president of UFCW Canada, which represents more than 8,000 poultry workers across the country.
To date, federal and provincial governments have failed to include front line poultry workers in the discussion of the Avian Flu pandemic.
“UFCW Canada members who make the country’s poultry sector possible would be the first to notice sick birds, the first to risk exposure to the deadly virus, and the first to sound the alarm. That’s like making poultry workers canaries in a mine – leaving them to contract the disease, suffer, and perhaps die as a warning of the coming pandemic,” adds Meinema.
“If we are to avoid a pandemic, Canada’s plan to contain the bird flu must have a worker component.” UFCW Canada is calling on governments to consider:
Direct contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces and objects is considered the main route of human infection. This kind of direct contact is the norm for workers in the poultry industry. A poultry worker immunization program will prevent the spread of the disease and assure the public that a meaningful step has been taken to contain the disease at its source.
Poultry workers are in the best position to visually identify sick birds and report suspected cases of bird flu. These front line workers are the nation’s best defense against a pandemic, but they will need whistleblower protections in order to avoid discrimination and to assure that profit doesn’t override health and safety.
Many immigrant, undocumented, or non-English or French-speaking poultry workers are unaware of workplace safety regulations. This population is unlikely to ask for safety and health protections such as respirators or flu shots. Some of these workers are precarious and vulnerable worker who are in Canada as part of the Temporary Workers Program; as such, we must reach out to these workers with health and safety information and empower them with the confidence to exercise their health, safety and labour rights.
“Protecting the health and safety of poultry workers should be a paramount concern for our governments, as should protecting the meat processing industry’s tremendous contribution to Canada’s economy, which suffers a serious setback with each new outbreak,” adds Meinema.
These worker issues are of paramount importance. Worker organizations, like unions, should be consulted and integrated into the effort. The UFCW stands ready to work with all interested stakeholders, including worker representatives, government agencies, and poultry companies.
UFCW Canada is Canada's leading and most progressive union, representing more than a quarter of a million workers in Canada's fastest growing industries. UFCW Canada is the country's most innovative organization dedicated to building fairness in workplaces and communities. To find out more about UFCW Canada and its groundbreaking work, please visit www.ufcw.ca.