Workforce representation does not exist in meat plants, and when a worker contracts Covid-19 the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) is not notified, the Dáil coronavirus committee has heard.
All the indicators to me are that they (the HSA) don’t want to be notified,” claimed Congress of Trade Unions leader Patricia King. “They don’t want this task. I am blue in the face writing out this.
“If they don’t go to the places and carry out inspections, we will be in all sorts of a mess.”
Greg Ennis of Siptu declared: “I believe we need Covid compliance inspectors. If we have to beef it up (the HSA), then beef it up – no pun intended.”
The trade unions warn that Covid could prevail “for possibly years to come”, but meat would always remain an essential foodstuff for the population.
Therefore there was “little choice but to shine a light like never before on this industry and address (it) once and for all”, Mr Ennis said.
The meat industry had become the “perfect storm” for the transmission and predicted resurgence of Covid-19 in Ireland.
Nora Loba of the Independent Workers Union said the pace of output in plants had never slowed down, despite outbreaks.
“When some workers got ill, others had to do more work,” she said.
Worker representatives, where they existed, had never been consulted about any protocols. The key problem was that workers were in substandard employment, on minimum wage with no sick pay, and had overcrowded living conditions.
The Covid crisis in meat plants was the inevitable consequence of the “long-term disregard of staff”. On minimum wage with no overtime, they had to work extremely long hours – with no time to go to the doctor or to learn English to communicate any problems.
James Lawless of Kildare North, a Fianna Fáil TD and former branch secretary of the trade union Unit, said the three locked-down counties had been psychologically damaged.
“Three counties are paying the price for three of four plants,” he said. Restricted residents were having to cancel their own staycations.
Siptu said the early experiences of meat processing plants and abattoirs in the US, Canada and across the European Union should have given notice of what was on the way for Ireland
“Siptu publicly called for mandatory temperature testing to be put in place for workers within the meat industry,” Mr Ennis said, and the union had complained in April to the HSA, while requesting inspections at a particular facility.
In May the union wrote to Meat Industry Ireland seeking a meeting, but was refused. It repeated its calls for speedy blanket testing of workers.
“It is now beyond doubt that the meat processing industry contains unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19, which had previously caused 1,115 meat plant workers to be infected in 20 clusters, as of early July,” Mr Ennis said.
The risk factors include close-proximity working, bottlenecks in canteens and toilets, and noise pollution causing workers to shout to communicate – creating droplets, with these circulated through the industrial air-cooling systems.
Workers were also forced by low wages to carpool, share accommodation and in many cases share rooms.
Nine in 10 do not get sick pay, forcing vulnerable workers to go to work – even if they are feeling unwell with possible Covid symptoms – he added.
Covid infection is not a notifiable disease, nor is it deemed a workplace injury, with Ms King claiming that the HSA was “obstructive” on the issue. She also said she had her own views on whether high levels of meat plant workers were asymptomatic, as claimed by meat plants.
There are now 1,450 meat plant workers with confirmed Covid cases in Ireland, or 10 per cent of the workforce. These are clusters of more than 100 cases in five separate meat plants, following the recent resurgence in the Midlands.
Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said a woman she had met while out canvassing had “thrown her eyes up to heaven and asked if there was anything to be said for another Beef Tribunal”.
Siptu said its research showed that Irish meat plant staff work an average 4.7 weeks a year more than their EU counterparts “and rank bottom of the list on actual hourly wages received”.
Mr Ennis said one meat plant worker had already died.
He said: “I am reliably advised that upwards of 40 migrant workers are sharing rooms in a certain town in Offaly. If we are truly serious about defeating Covid in the meat industry, this ‘hot bedding’ of workers has to stop.”
He added that one worker had gone back to Eastern Europe to visit family and on return had tried to self-isolate, as required. “He was told, ‘If you self-isolate, there won’t be a job for you in two weeks.”
He added: “When one looks at the reimposed lockdown in Laois, Kildare and Offaly, surely it is now costing that Midlands economy more to deal with this crisis than it would to ensure that employers and State agencies be equipped to fulfil their obligations.”
Ms King said the two leading operators in Ireland had a turnover of €2.3 billion and €2.2 billion last year.
“You are talking about big money being made. The model is to work people as fast as they can, for as little as they can, for as long as they can.”
Independent TD Matt Shanahan said there were high capital costs in the industry, but farmers were being paid less than the cost of production and the price of meat cuts now was lower than it was 30 years ago.
Ms Loba said if meat plant workers were paid the average industrial wage, it would increase the cost of a finished chicken by only eight cent for the consumer.
Carol Nolan, a Laois-Offaly Independent, said Laois, Kildare and Offaly have been “unfairly punished because of the meat factories”.
“We are a region that is already on its knees, with Bord na Móna workers losing their jobs and more to go before Christmas.”
She said businesses in the three counties were now threatened for their survival as a result of the restrictions imposed in the wake of the meat plant outbreaks.
“A blind eye has been turned for far too long. It just has to stop,” she said.
Siptu representative Greg Ennis agreed, telling the committee: “This in a catastrophe. The three counties are paying the price for us taking our eyes off the ball.”