B.C. food industry workers are heroes—but will it be for more than one day?

"I don't think most people in the food industry know how big the food industry is," quips James Donaldson, CEO of BC Food & Beverage. In B.C., Donaldson says, it's a $10-billion business—and that's just food and beverage manufacturing. "If you factor in agriculture and seafood, it's closer to $15...

Credit: Courtesy of BC Food & Beverage

In a portrait taken before the COVID-19 outbreak prompted physical distancing and other new protective measures for food workers, the staff of Moonshine Mamas Elixirs + Tonics, a BC Food & Beverage member, raise a glass at their production facility on Salt Spring Island

Although food processing and its associated businesses are an essential service during COVID-19, it remains to be seen if that translates to lasting benefits for employees

“I don’t think most people in the food industry know how big the food industry is,” quips James Donaldson, CEO of BC Food & Beverage. In B.C., Donaldson says, it’s a $10-billion business—and that’s just food and beverage manufacturing. “If you factor in agriculture and seafood, it’s closer to $15 billion.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial government recently declared this vast industry an essential service—a designation that spans the entire supply chain, from truck drivers to grocery clerks. “It’s not just the food,” Donaldson says. “It’s all of those other things that roll into making sure that the product gets through.”

How safe are food workers during the pandemic? And given their crucial role in keeping the province running, will they enjoy more respect—and maybe higher wages, too—when the crisis is over?

The essential services designation means two things for the industry, says Donaldson, whose nonprofit represents more than 450 processing companies of all sizes. First, it gives clarity on who must keep working. “There’s been a bit of ambiguity,” Donaldson notes. Employees have been told that it’s important to come to work, he says, but the message on TV is for everyone to stay home. “So providing clarity on what’s an essential service and why was really, really important,” Donaldson adds. “It sends a clear message about the importance of ensuring the continuity of the food supply.”

Second, as providers of essential services, food manufacturers gain access to personal protective equipment (PPE)—masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other gear. “Food manufacturing is a very clean, sterile environment anyway, and companies have been taking additional measures,” Donaldson says. “But when you’re not an essential service, you start to slide down the pecking order in terms of a priority list. So all of a sudden, you need to have that essential service designation to even be eligible to receive those supplies.”

Essential services designation or not, there are two extremes in the industry right now, Donaldson relates. “You’ve got companies that are primarily selling into grocery stores that are having huge demand for their product and huge growth, and are struggling to keep up,” he says. “Meanwhile, you’ve got other companies that were focusing on food services and airline business, and they’ve been very, very hard-hit.”

In Canada and the U.S., COVID-19 outbreaks have forced food processing facilities to close. Are B.C. workers quitting or refusing to show up because of worries about their health? “We haven’t experienced that a lot,” Donaldson says. “Companies are being incredibly cautious right now. So if anybody has a mild cold symptom or cough or is feeling slightly off for any reason, they’re being sent home and asked to stay home until they’re well.”

Health and safety is the biggest issue for workers, says Kim Novak, president of UFCW Canada Local 1518, whose 20,000-plus members include food processing and retail employees. With that in mind, the union has health and safety committees and co-chairs in all of its units. “We’ve established a health and safety task force from our office to provide them the support that they need in the event things aren’t meeting the standards and expectations that we would have,” Novak says. “Because COVID is evolving as quickly as it is…we’ve seen a very rapid response in terms of those protocols adapting to new information on sometimes a daily basis.”

The food industry has always made product and personnel safety a high priority and continues to do so during the pandemic, says Anubhav Pratap Singh, an assistant professor at UBC’s faculty of land and food systems“Keeping the food manufacturers a part of essential services was a necessity that is being recognized all over the world,” Singh observes. “This is very important to ensure food security and safety, both during the crisis and perhaps even after the crisis is over.”

Most B.C. food industries have updated their standard operating protocols to include social distancing, Singh says. In most cases, the number of personnel for each shift has been reduced, lunch hours have been segregated, and non-essential personnel and office staff have been asked to work from home.

Asked if employees have the equipment they need to stay safe, Novak calls the Plexiglas screens that have been installed at many grocery checkouts “a big step in the right direction.” In food processing plants, the most notable change is with break rooms, she says. “Because the lines are designed to be working at such a pace, we have seen that the break rooms have adapted so that there’s either trailers or tents made available so there’s that physical distancing.”

When union members do have concerns, Novak says, UFCW 1518 works with its health and safety committees. “And in cases where things have not been addressed fast enough, we’ve encouraged them to contact WorkSafe. And so far, the issues are being addressed.”

On the question of whether the public will gain a lasting respect for food workers, Donaldson is optimistic. “Companies are doing a really good job of thanking their employees and supporting them, and obviously we are, too, because it’s really critical that we make sure the food supply continue,” he says. “I hope there’s a heightened sense of that as we go forward.”

For Novak, the crisis presents an opportunity. Her union has “seen an outpouring of support and compassion and appreciation,” she says. “That’s probably meant more than anything to our members, hearing how much they are appreciated and that they are the heroes on the front line.”

Looking ahead, Novak hopes that goodwill translates to stronger collective agreements at the bargaining table. “I think it’s not only to negotiate improvements during this very critical time, but also, how does that look after COVID is over?” she says. “This is the opportunity for labour to highlight the important work that people in both union and non-union work environments are always doing.”