When Ontario went into lockdown, Maria Cabral was among the thousands of workers in the meat processing sector going into work every day.
“You wake up and go in with fear – everyone is scared,” said Cabral. Even with many co-workers choosing to stay home, Cabral kept going in, wanting to do her part to keep the workplace safe and feed Ontario’s families.
She is among the invisible warriors of the COVID-19 crisis, working to protect and maintain Canada’s food supply during the COVID-19 crisis.
Since the pandemic began, those working in food processing, warehousing and distribution have been on the job, helping to get Canadian families through an unprecedented period in our country’s history.
While the work they do may be invisible to the public, their roles are vital to Canada’s food industry and to Canadian families.
Serving the Community
As the roads grew emptier and the shutdowns spread, the trucks kept going, replenishing grocery stores in the face of unprecedented customer demand. The public, faced with increased uncertainty and anxiety, turned out to stores to buy food and supplies in bulk and hunker down.
Trevor Enos, who drives a transport truck, remembers pulling into a grocery store parking lot and seeing customers standing in line one to two hours before the doors opened.
“It was surreal,” said Enos, who has been a driver for three decades. “We had never seen anything like it before.”
In the beginning, most of the drivers wanted to stay home.
“I told my wife, I don’t want anything to happen to you, I don’t want to bring anything back to you,” said Enos, a union steward. “At the same time, we felt we had to really be there for the community– I have to make sure people can get fed.”
The stewards, with the union by their side, worked with management to increase and enhance safety protocols for truck drivers. At home, drivers instituted different practices to keep their families safe, including some sleeping in the basement and others fully cleaning up and changing before meeting families.
At work, the new reality became proper sanitation and disinfection of trucks after each use, paperless documentation, gloves and masks as needed and maintaining proper physical distancing at different locations.
“We all want to make sure we are in the game together,” Enos said. “It’s about doing what is right to keep everyone safe.”
For members working in distribution centres, the pandemic and increased demand has resulted in a surge in business and workloads.
“We have been working long hours and extra shifts, trying to get the products we store to as many places we can as fast and as safe as we can,” said Curtis Rodriques, chief steward at an Ajax warehouse. The warehouse now runs seven days a week, instead of six previously.
“Keeping food on the shelves at the local grocery store is our job, that’s what we do and that’s why we leave our families at home and are putting in 12 hour-days, 6 days a week.”
For some members, it’s meant they haven’t spent any quality time with loved ones for three months, since the COVID-19 crisis began in Ontario.
To prevent the spread of the virus, the union, workers, and management have worked together to protect members’ heath and safety.
Increased precautions have been put in place, including enhanced cleaning, touchless facilities, sanitation stations and disinfectant wipes, masks and promotion of social distancing.
“I would just like to thank the union for being the voice for those who are unable to be heard,” said Rodriques. “I would like to thank the warehouse, transporters and store employees for putting themselves at risk to feed families across Ontario.”
Striving for Fair Recognition and Compensation
Working during the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t been easy for 1006A steward Pramie Ramroop.
“It has been a trying time for all of us working in the meat and food industry,” said Ramroop, who works at a food processing plant.
“We are constantly going out of our comfort zone and risking our well-being to do the jobs that we do. I feel as though more can be done to receive adequate recognition and compensation for the work we do.”
The workers are taking steps to keep themselves safe at work and at home.
“We take great precautions to be doing what we do, especially with being deemed as essential workers,” she said.
At work, temperature checks, face masks and shields, increased sanitizing stations, staggered breaks, plexi-glass separators, social distancing measures are among the new reality.
Beyond work, Ramroop’s daily routine has changed, especially since her immediate family members are all essential frontline workers.
“We have created additional sanitary steps and social distancing measures at home to safeguard our wellbeing,” she said.
The Union Difference
“When this pandemic is over, I hope all Canadians remember the vital and essential role our members played in helping feed Ontario’s families,” said President Wayne Hanley. “On behalf of our membership, I thank them for their incredible service to their communities. They deserve to be recognized for being warriors in the COVID-19 fight. We will continue to work with our members and management to ensure their health and safety is protected and strong safety protocols remain in place for the duration of this pandemic.”