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Concern for employees at meat processing plants as working conditions ‘fall off radar’ and testing paused

The HSE this week said it had decided to prioritise testing in the community.

THERE IS CONCERN that the case for the improvement of working conditions and increased protection for employees in food processing plants will ‘fall off the radar’ as Covid-19 incidences in these settings drop and community testing is prioritised over serial regimes in the factories.

There have been 1,500 cases and 31 clusters at meat plants alone since the start of the pandemic.

Representatives of workers have repeatedly told the government over the last number of weeks and months that the quick spread of the virus in these facilities is linked to working conditions, including sick pay entitlements.

On 12 August, in response to the large clusters in food processing plants, the government announced a mass testing programme, starting first in the worst affected counties – Kildare, Laois and Offaly – before being rolled out nationally.

More than 15,000 tests have been completed since the programme began on 12 August, with a positivity rate of 0.28%, or 42 positive tests in total. Weekly testing was to continue but the HSE decided to pause the plan for this week and instead focus on the rising demand for sampling in the community from people who are symptomatic.

SIPTU organiser Greg Ennis said no advance notice of the decision was given to workers or their unions. He said he is “extremely concerned” as there are still small numbers of new cases being reported in these settings and there are currently four active clusters. 

“Even if it is only paused for a week and even if positivity is only 0.3% it’s still worrying. The meat industry has been proven to have unrivalled transmission vectors for Covid with over 1,500 cases out of 15,000 workers – that’s 10% of workers. 

“On average there have been 751 meat plant workers tested per day since the rollout of serial testing began and if the capacity can’t handle that when we had [former Health Minister] Simon Harris at one stage committing to 15,000 a day, then God help us all when we face the winter influenza.”

Ennis said he is concerned that issues in the sector are “falling off the radar”.

“In mid-June I was doing interviews predicting a second wave could manifest itself in the meat industry and unfortunately that was proven to be the case. The rollout of serial testing was only announced on 12 August, something I had been calling for, for months earlier. We need to keep on top of this and the cessation of testing at this point is extremely concerning.”

Accommodation and car-pooling

The recent hearings of the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee heard that these low paid jobs, frequently done by migrant workers, can lead to workers living together in cramped conditions and travelling to the plants together.

While this is the case for some, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) has said these factors should not become a “distraction” from required changes inside the plants or be used to transfer the blame onto the employees. 

According to recent research by MRCI involving 100 workers from seven different counties, 71% did not live with coworkers. 

“From what we’ve heard from workers, the majority aren’t living with large numbers of other workers and many are living with their families,” Brid McKeown, project co-coordinator with MRCI told TheJournal.ie.

“Workers are being asked to work shoulder-to-shoulder for unchanged production levels, so if some of them from the same plant are also living together, it doesn’t really make much of a difference. They work so closely together all day, often in unsafe and inadequate conditions.

The workers we spoke to who had it [Covid-19] are certain they caught it in work. At the Oireachtas committee Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said the meat doesn’t bring it in, the workers do. Yes, one worker might, and that worker could be in a supervisory position, but the conditions help it spread to many others.

“It’s a distraction, I think it is so easy to blame people who can’t stand up for themselves.”

She said one worker living in the south west and his entire family caught the virus and he is “certain he brought it in from work”.

“He was terrified going to work in case he brought it home. His wife in particular was very sick with it, and she’s lost her sense of taste and smell,” McKeown said.

Another worker, a Brazilian man who spoke to MRCI, shared his experience with Covid-19:

I got sick from Covid and was off for 15 days. I know I got it at work; nearly half of the people working there got sick. The production never stopped and the people left behind had to work twice as hard to maintain the output level. The company did not give us sick pay.

“There are six workers living in my house. Two of us got Covid and the others had to quarantine too. We didn’t want to give it to them so we had to have a rota with slotted times to use the kitchen and bathroom. It was a really hard time for us all.

I don’t feel valued at all. Everyone is treated the same way – just as bad. They really don’t care about us.

McKeown said the worker in this example got the State illness benefit 40 days after he applied. She said there has been an assumption that these workers have been acting irresponsibly in some way outside of work, but those who spoke to MRCI shared similar stories of managing cases safely in their homes.

“The fact that they were acting really responsibly and cared about one another is such a human thing – of course that’s what they did,” she said.

‘Wild allegations’

Spokesperson for Meat Industry Ireland, Cormac Healy, agreed that the rapid spread of the virus through meat processing workers cannot be blamed on workers who share accommodation.

He said there had been many “wild allegations” made about accommodation arrangements. 

“Across all parts of the economy and sectors and workplaces, there are people who share accommodation and travel to work together. In the context of working with the HSE, companies have logged if workers are sharing accommodation and transport so that’s there for tracing purpose. 

“Accommodation is not part of normal terms of employment for a workplace so the only place where our members are required to assist with accommodation is if there is an obligation for certain employment permit arrangements.”

Healy said in these situations employers look to source accommodation that is appropriate and has the necessary number of individual rooms for workers. 

He pointed out that food processing was one of the few industries that has been open all throughout the pandemic in Ireland and was therefore was more likely to see cases. 

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MII is contributing to a review of whether working conditions at plants contributed significantly to the spread. There have been suggestions that air filtration systems may be contributing, as well as the generally close working conditions of a production line. 

Healy said employers have not been able to identify one particular factor that was a key cause of the transmission. 

“If it was an issue right across the industry you would have seen some similarity in terms of cases across the sites. We have had sites with no cases at all or very few, as well as those with large numbers. There are a lot of questions and a lot of work to do and that is ongoing.”

Healy said there are a number of key measures in place in the larger processing plants to keep Covid-19 out. 

“When staff come in, there is a screening process with questions about symptoms and a temperature check. This is the first line of defence,” he said.

Masks and visors have been introduced and perspex screen were installed in areas of the production line where social distancing is not possible. Lunch breaks and start times are staggered and plants have public health notices on screens with information in multiple languages. 

Healy said the low level of positive cases identified in the recent serial testing shows that the measures in place in processing facilities are working.

Sick pay

MII is due to meet with Siptu next Friday to discuss the terms of a charter, primarily focused on measures to protect staff in the context of Covid-19 and ensure plants can avoid closure due to clusters. The union has been pushing for sick pay policies to form a part of that charter as it has said the absence of sick pay entitlements is a barrier to quickly identifying positive cases. 

Siptu has said some workers are afraid to disclose symptoms or take sick days in case they lose income or lose their jobs entirely.

Union organiser Greg Ennis said MII’s “failure to engage on sick pay is a source of massive concern”.

“They have told us they have no mandate to engage on sick pay but they had a mandate to represent employers in the Oireachtas on two occasions.”

Healy told TheJournal.ie that MII will not sign up to an agreement on sick pay as it “doesn’t have a mandate in terms of particular pay and conditions”.

“Some members have their own sick pay schemes in place but a one size fits all approach isn’t necessarily going to work,” he said.

He said where sick pay policies are not in place, some members have assisted workers if there were delays with State supports while they were required to self-isolate. 

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