‘Elbow to elbow:’ North America meat plant workers fall ill, walk off jobs

By Tom Polansek and Rod Nickel

CHICAGO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) – At a Wayne Farms chicken processing plant in Alabama, workers recently had to pay the company 10 cents a day to buy masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus, according to a meat inspector.

In Colorado, nearly a third of the workers at a JBS USA beef plant stayed home amid safety concerns for the last two weeks as a 30-year employee of the facility died following complications from the virus.

And since an Olymel pork plant in Quebec shut on March 29, the number of workers who tested positive for the coronavirus quintupled to more than 50, according to their union. The facility and at least 10 others in North America have temporarily closed or reduced production in about the last two weeks because of the pandemic, disrupting food supply chains that have struggled to keep pace with surging demand at grocery stores.

According to more than a dozen interviews with U.S and Canadian plant workers, union leaders and industry analysts, a lack of protective equipment and the nature of “elbow to elbow” work required to debone chickens, chop beef and slice hams are highlighting risks for employees and limiting output as some forego the low-paying work. Companies that added protections, such as enhanced cleaning or spacing out workers, say the moves are further slowing meat production.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork processor, on Sunday said it is shutting a pork plant indefinitely and warned that plant shutdowns are pushing the United States “perilously close to the edge” in meat supplies for grocers.

Lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of the coronavirus have prevented farmers across the globe from delivering produce to consumers. Millions of laborers also cannot get to the fields for harvesting and planting, and there are too few truckers to keep goods moving.

The United States and Canada are among the world’s biggest shippers of beef and pork. Food production has continued as governments try to ensure adequate supplies, even as they close broad swathes of the economy.

The closures and increased absenteeism among workers have contributed to drops in the price of livestock, as farmers find fewer places for slaughter. Since March 25, nearby lean hog futures have plunged 35%, and live cattle prices shed 15%, straining the U.S. farm economy.

North American meat demand has dropped some 30% in the past month as declining sales of restaurant meats like steaks and chicken wings outweighed a spike in retail demand for ground beef, said Christine McCracken, Rabobank’s animal protein analyst.

Frozen meats in U.S. cold storage facilities remain plentiful, but supply could be whittled down as exports to protein-hungry China increase after a trade agreement removed obstacles for American meat purchases.

“There’s a huge risk of additional plant closures,” McCracken said.

JBS had to reduce beef production at a massive plant in Greeley, Colorado, as about 800 to 1,000 workers a day stayed home since the end of March, said Kim Cordova, president of the local United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union that represents employees.

“There’s just not enough people,” Cordova said. She added that the union knew of at least 50 cases and two deaths among employees as of Friday.

Plant worker Saul Sanchez, known affectionately as “grandpa” among some co-workers, tested positive for the virus and died on April 7 at 78 years old, according to his daughter, Beatriz Rangel. She said he only went from home to work before developing symptoms, including a low fever.

“I’m heartbroken because my dad was so loyal,” Rangel said.

Brazilian owned JBS confirmed an employee with three decades of experience died from complications associated with COVID-19, without naming Sanchez. The company said he had not been at work since March 20, the same day JBS removed people older than 70 from its facilities as a precaution. He was never symptomatic while at work and never worked in the facility while sick, according to the company.

JBS said it was working with federal and state governments to obtain tests for all plant employees.

Weld County, where the plant is located, had the fourth highest number of COVID-19 cases of any county in Colorado on Friday, according to the state. Health officials confirmed cases among JBS workers.

JBS said high absenteeism at the plant led slaughter rates to outpace the process of cutting carcasses into pieces of beef. The company disputed the union’s numbers on worker absences but did not provide its own. It took steps including buying masks and putting up plexiglass shields in lunch rooms to protect employees, said Cameron Bruett, spokesman for JBS USA.

“MY LIFE IS IN JEOPARDY”

At Wayne Farms’ chicken plant in Decatur, Alabama, some workers are upset the company recently made employees pay for masks, said Mona Darby, who inspects chicken breasts there and is a local leader of hundreds of poultry workers for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

“My life is in jeopardy because we’re working elbow to elbow,” she said.

Wayne Farms, with annual sales exceeding $2 billion, is trying to obtain masks to distribute to employees, though supplies are limited, spokesman Frank Singleton said. He said he did not know of any instances where employees were charged for masks.

Workers at a Tyson Foods Inc chicken plant in Shelbyville, Tennessee, bought their own masks when the facility ran out, said Kim Hickerson, who loads chicken on trucks there and is a union leader. Some are talking about quitting because they are scared of getting sick, he said.

“I just put it in God’s hands,” he said.

Tyson, the top U.S. meat producer, is working to find more personal protective equipment for employees, spokesman Worth Sparkman said. The company increased cleaning at facilities and sought to space out employees, which can both slow production, according to a statement.

Workers have lost their trust in Olymel after an outbreak of the coronavirus closed a plant in Yamachiche, Quebec, according to union spokeswoman Anouk Collet. “They do not feel that the company took all the measures they could have taken to keep them safe,” she said.

Company spokesman Richard Vigneault said the plant will reopen on Tuesday with new measures in place, such as separating panels, masks and visors.

Marc Perrone, international president of the UFCW union, said meat plant workers are increasingly weighing concerns about their own safety and their responsibility to produce food.

“If we don’t take care of the food supply, the American people are going to panic,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Edward Tobin)

Canadian capital of Ottawa declares state of emergency as waters swell

A man and woman hold hands while walking through a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

MONTREAL/OTTAWA (Reuters) – Rising waters were prompting further evacuations in central Canada on Thursday, with the mayor of the country’s capital, Ottawa, declaring a state of emergency and Quebec authorities warning that a hydroelectric dam was at risk of breaking.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared the emergency in response to rising water levels along the Ottawa River and weather forecasts that called for significant rainfall on Friday.

A man looks out at a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A man looks out at a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

In a statement on Twitter, Watson asked for help from the Ontario provincial government and the country’s military.

He warned that “flood levels are currently forecasted to exceed the levels that caused significant damage to numerous properties in the city of Ottawa in 2017.”

Spring flooding had killed one person and forced more than 900 people from their homes in Canada’s Quebec province as of 1 p.m. on Thursday, according to a government website.

Ottawa has received 80 requests for service related to potential flooding such as sandbagging, a city spokeswoman said.

The prospect of more rain over the next 24 to 48 hours triggered concerns on Thursday that the hydroelectric dam at Bell Falls in the western part of Quebec could be at risk of failing because of rising water levels.

Quebec’s provincial police said 250 people were protectively removed from homes in the area as of late afternoon in case the dam on the Rouge River breaks.

The dam is now at its full flow capacity of 980 cubic meters per second of water, said Francis Labbé, a spokesman for the province’s state-owned utility, Hydro Quebec. He said Hydro Quebec expected the flow could rise to 1,200 cubic meters per second of water over the next two days.

“We have to take the worst-case scenario into consideration, since we`re already at the maximum capacity,” Labbé said by phone.

The dam is part of a power station that no longer produces electricity, but is regularly inspected by Hydro Quebec, he said.

(Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal and David Ljunggren and Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)

Canadian groups seek to overturn Quebec ban on Muslim veil

Canadian groups seek to overturn Quebec ban on Muslim veil

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Two Canadian groups on Tuesday asked a court to overturn a new Quebec law that bans observant Muslim women from wearing a full-face veil when providing or receiving government services.

The National Council for Canadian Muslims, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Quebec Muslim resident Marie-Michelle Lacoste asked a provincial court to declare the law invalid, arguing that it discriminates against Muslim women and violates equality and freedom of religion protections in the Canadian and Quebec constitutions.

The provincial Liberal government that backed the law, passed on Oct. 18, has rejected claims that it targets Muslim women. It argues that the ban on all face coverings was necessary for security reasons and to facility communication and identification of people. Debate has focused on the niqab, a veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women that covers the whole face save for the eyes.

Opponents of the law say it targets a visible minority that has been subject to threats and violence in the primarily French-speaking province. Quebec had about 243,000 Muslims as of 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

The government believes the law is constitutional and will defend it in court, Isabelle Marier St-Onge, a spokeswoman for Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee, said by phone on Tuesday.

The law affects teachers, police officers, hospital employees and daycare workers in government agencies, and users of public services, from school to mass transit systems.

“Such blatant and unjustified violations of freedom of religion, as well as of the equality guarantees of the Quebec and Canadian Charters, have no place in Quebec or Canada,” the groups’ court submission said.

The plaintiffs stand a good chance of success, said political scientist Emmett Macfarlane, who has written extensively about Canada’s constitution and Supreme Court.

“It’s a pretty clear case, where we know who’s being adversely affected and we know it’s a distinct minority,” Macfarlane said.

In January a gunman walked into a Quebec City mosque and shot six people to death. A French-Canadian university student has been charged as the sole suspect.

France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have imposed restrictions on the wearing of full-face veils in public places. Denmark plans to institute its own ban.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Jim Finkle and Richard Chang)

City of Montreal declares state of emergency from flooding

A man paddles a canoe in a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

(Reuters) – The city of Montreal declared a state of emergency on Sunday afternoon as floodwaters spread from torrential rains that have lashed the city since early on Friday, causing the worst flooding in decades, city officials said.

The state of emergency, which gives firefighters extra resources to battle the flooding, will be in place for 48 hours and the situation will be reviewed afterward. The city of Montreal said in a statement that it would take several days for the situation to get back to normal.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C) helps fill sandbags after flooding in Terrasse-Vaudreuil, Quebec

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C) helps fill sandbags after flooding in Terrasse-Vaudreuil, Quebec, Canada May 7, 2017. Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office/Handout via REUTERS

Across the Canadian province of Quebec, 126 municipalities are now considered part of flood zones, and the number of homes hit by flooding is in the thousands, CBC News reported on Sunday.

In Montreal, the province’s most populous city, 221 people have been flooded out of their homes, prompting Mayor Denis Coderre to urge residents to comply with evacuation orders, the officials said.

The Canadian military will deploy about 1,200 troops to help deal with the flooding, CBC reported. Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel described the rainfall as historic.

A resident sits on a swing in a flooded residential area in Rigaud, Quebec, Canada

A resident sits on a swing in a flooded residential area in Rigaud, Quebec, Canada, May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

(Reporting by Denny Thomas in Toronto; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Refugee claimants from U.S. strain Canada’s border resources

telecommunications operator

By Allison Lampert

HEMMINGFORD, Quebec (Reuters) – Canadian police said on Monday they had bolstered their presence at the Quebec border and that border authorities had created a temporary refugee center to process a growing number of asylum seekers crossing from the United States.

The Canada Border Services Agency, or CBSA, said at a news conference that it had converted an unused basement into a refugee claimant processing center. Both the border agency and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are reassigning staff from other locations in the province, as needed, to accommodate rising demand.

The CBSA said the number of people making refugee claims at Quebec-U.S. border crossings more than doubled from 2015 to 2016. Last month, 452 people made claims in Quebec compared with 137 in January 2016, the agency said.

The influx is straining police, federal government and community resources from the western prairie province of Manitoba, where people arrive frostbitten from hours walking in freezing conditions, to Quebec, where cabs drop asylum seekers off meters away from the Quebec-U.S.border, the border agency said.

Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

A Reuters reporter on Monday saw RCMP officers take in for questioning a family of four – two men, a woman and a baby in a car seat – who had walked across the snowy gully dividing Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, from Chemin Roxham in Hemmingford, Quebec.

“Please explain to her that she’s in Canada,” one Canadian officer told another officer.

Police take people crossing the border in for questioning at the border agency’s office in Lacolle, Quebec, which is the province’s biggest and busiest border crossing. Police identify them and ensure they are not a threat or carrying contraband.

They are then transferred to the CBSA for fingerprinting and further questions. If people are deemed a threat or flight risk, they are detained. If not, they can file refugee claims and live in Canada while they wait for a decision

“It’s touching, and we are not insensitive to that,” Bryan Byrne, the RCMP’s Champlain Detachment commander, told reporters near the border. “Some of these people had a long journey. Some are not dressed for the climate here.”

Asylum seekers cross illegally because Canada’s policy under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement is to turn back refugees if they make claims at border crossings. But as U.S. President Donald Trump cracks down on illegal immigrants, Amnesty International and refugee advocacy groups are pressuring the Canadian government to abandon the agreement, arguing the United States is no safe haven.

On Monday, Montreal, Canada’s second most populous city, voted to declare itself a “sanctuary city,” making it the fourth Canadian city to protect illegal immigrants and to provide services to them.

(Additional reporting and writing by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Diane Craft and Peter Cooney)

Canadian PM says mosque shooting a ‘terrorist attack on Muslims’

ambulance parked at scene of Quebec mosque shooting

By Kevin Dougherty

QUEBEC CITY (Reuters) – Six people were killed and eight wounded when gunmen opened fire at a Quebec City mosque during Sunday night prayers, in what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack on Muslims”.

Police said two suspects had been arrested, but gave no details about them or what prompted the attack.

Initially, the mosque president said five people were killed and a witness said up to three gunmen had fired on about 40 people inside the Quebec City Islamic Cultural Centre. Police said only two people were involved in the attack.

“Six people are confirmed dead – they range in age from 35 to about 70,” Quebec provincial police spokeswoman Christine Coulombe told reporters, adding eight people were wounded and 39 were unharmed.

The mosque’s president, Mohamed Yangui, who was not inside when the shooting occurred, said he got frantic calls from people at evening prayers.

“Why is this happening here? This is barbaric,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement: “We condemn this terrorist attack on Muslims in a center of worship and refuge”.

“Muslim-Canadians are an important part of our national fabric, and these senseless acts have no place in our communities, cities and country.”

The shooting came on the weekend that Trudeau said Canada would welcome refugees, after U.S. President Donald Trump suspended the U.S. refugee program and temporarily barred citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States on national security grounds.

A Canadian federal Liberal legislator, Greg Fergus, tweeted: “This is an act of terrorism — the result of years of sermonizing Muslims. Words matter and hateful speeches have consequences!”

The premier of Quebec province, Philippe Couillard, said security would be increased at mosques in Quebec City and Montreal.

“We are with you. You are home,” Couillard said, directing his comments at the province’s Muslim community. “You are welcome in your home. We are all Quebecers. We must continue together to build an open welcoming and peaceful society”.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said police were providing additional protection for mosques in that city following the Quebec shooting. “All New Yorkers should be vigilant. If you see something, say something,” he tweeted.

‘NOT SAFE HERE’

French President Francois Hollande condemned the attack.

“The terrorists wanted to attack the spirit of peace and tolerance of the citizens of Quebec,” Hollande said in a statement on Monday. “France stands shoulder to shoulder with the victims and their families”.

Like France, Quebec has struggled at times to reconcile its secular identity with a rising Muslim population, many of them from North Africa.

In June last year, a pig’s head was left on the doorstep of the cultural center.

“We are not safe here,” said Mohammed Oudghiri, who normally attends prayers at the mosque in the middle-class, residential area, but did not on Sunday.

Oudghiri said he had lived in Quebec for 42 years but was now “very worried” and thinking of moving back to Morocco.

Mass shootings are rare in Canada, which has stricter gun laws than the United States, and news of the shooting sent a shockwave through mosques and community centers throughout the mostly French-language province.

“It’s a sad day for all Quebecers and Canadians to see a terrorist attack happen in peaceful Quebec City,” said Mohamed Yacoub, co-chairman of an Islamic community center in a Montreal suburb.

“I hope it’s an isolated incident.”

Incidents of Islamophobia have increased in Quebec in recent years. The face-covering, or niqab, became a big issue in the 2015 Canadian federal election, especially in Quebec, where the majority of the population supported a ban on it at citizenship ceremonies.

In 2013, police investigated after a mosque in the Saguenay region of the province was splattered with what was believed to be pig blood. In the neighboring province of Ontario, a mosque was set on fire in 2015, a day after an attack by gunmen and suicide bombers in Paris.

Zebida Bendjeddou, who left the Quebec City mosque earlier on Sunday evening, said the center had received threats.

“In June, they’d put a pig’s head in front of the mosque. But we thought: ‘Oh, they’re isolated events.’ We didn’t take it seriously. But tonight, those isolated events, they take on a different scope,” she said.

Bendjeddou said she had not confirmed the names of those killed, but added: “They’re people we know, for sure. People we knew since they were little kids.”

(Reporting by Kevin Dougherty in Quebec City; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Andrea Hopkins and David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto and Chris Michaud in New York; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Peter Cooney, Robert Birsel)