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Scab Work Camp at Saskatchewan Co-op Refinery Still a Threat to Public Health, Locals Warn

“If you cram a lot of people into a camp like that, naturally there's going to be a vector of diseases,” says Regina city councillor

Workers, occupational health experts and local officials are warning that a crowded camp housing hundreds of scab workers at the Co-op Refinery Complex in Regina is still a potential COVID-19 hot spot and a threat to their community.

Around 300 scab workers live and sleep in close quarters in the camp. Scab workers come in close contact with one another, share common areas, washrooms, showers and breathe air from a single source of ventilation.

The scabs, many of whom fly-in from outside the province, replaced local workers that have been locked-out of the refinery since December 2019.

Co-op initially claimed its scab camp received a clean bill of health from health inspectors: “They believe we’ve provided a safe working / operating environment for our workers and that our pandemic plan for the on-site work camp meets their high standards,” the company tweeted earlier this month.

But Saskatchewan’s Health Authority did not say Co-op eliminated the possibility of an outbreak, only that its steps are “adequate to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” In fact, the SHA actually flagged concerns and made a number of recommendations relating to how the company is sanitizing common areas and communicating health and safety messages to scab workers.

Satellite imagery showing scab camp’s distance from refinery (Unifor)

The company cancelled plans to bring in more scab workers last month, stating at the time that “it is simply not safe for our employees or our community to have additional people arriving on site while the threat of COVID-19 exists.”

Despite assurances the company can contain a viral outbreak, local officials say crowded camps clearly aren’t a safe place to be in the middle of a pandemic.

“From a presumably common sense public health perspective, if you cram a lot of people into a camp like that, naturally there’s going to be a vector of diseases,” Regina Councillor Andrew Stevens told PressProgress.

Stevens said he hasn’t received a detailed copy of the report but is pleased health authorities investigated the work camp. “That said, I can’t help but think of this in the bigger scheme of things.”

“All sorts of comparable examples are actually being shut down or not opened up because of close quarters,” Stevens said. “We are seeing COVID outbreaks in work camps in and around Fort McMurray.”

“This camp is totally unnecessary.”

A few weeks ago, Stevens published a letter he received from a nurse at a local hospital who shared their concerns about the risks the scab camp could pose to the local community and healthcare system:

“When I learned that there was no plan to shut down the camp, I was shocked and fearful for what the repercussions of this may be on our hospital … My concern is that these members are not secluded enough – many members are still coming in and out of the community, which I understand is necessary for an essential service. However, those that come in and out should be sent directly home and back to work. The camp is completely unnecessary and just a breeding cesspool of potential illness … My fear: this virus spreads easily and like wildfire. If even one person contracts the virus in this camp setting. The result could be utter devastation and collapse of our healthcare system. We can not handle a massive influx of patients all at once for treatment into our already burdened hospital. This is exactly what we are trying to avoid – any type of mass influx.”

Floor plan for 6-bed sleeper unit at Co-op’s scab camp (City of Regina)

The union local that represents locked-out Co-op workers said it remains confused why Scott Moe’s government would designate scabs as essential workers.

“I don’t understand it a little bit,” Kevin Bittman, president of Unifor local 594, told PressProgress. “I get how the refinery itself is essential, but the camp is only essential to the lockout.”

If there were an outbreak inside the scab camp, Bittman said company management could still enable community spread of the virus.

“Every day we see the managers drive in and out of the plant at shift change,” Bittman said. “When they say the camp is locked down, that’s not true because they come and go after intermingling with people from outside.”

One new case and it’s bad news for Saskatchewan.”

Co-op presents $320,000 novelty cheque to Regina Mayor Michael Fougere (Co-op)

Sean Tucker, a University of Regina occupational health and safety expert, said the scab camp is not only a health concern during a pandemic, but that it never should have been built in the first place.

Tucker points out that the City of Regina neglected to request the refinery conduct a “major risk assessment report” before green-lighting the scab camp, which is built on public land.

“This report would have looked at the potential safety issues surrounding this type of worker housing,” Tucker told PressProgress. “This is a major missing piece and in my opinion the camp should never have been permitted without.”

“I don’t recall a situation ever where a city leased publicly owned land to a company to house replacement workers. It’s just completely inappropriate.”

Tucker echoed those comments in an interview with Rank and File Radio last week, noting the company’s cozy ties and generous donations to the City of Regina could lend to the appearance of regulatory capture.

“We shouldn’t be accepting money from the refinery, we’ve got ourselves all twisted up in knots here,” Tucker said. “We shouldn’t have these types of relationships with them. This has really got to end.”

 

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