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Migrant rights group seeks meeting with Taoiseach over 'serious' concerns from meat factory workers

Nearly 1,500 confirmed cases have been linked to 28 meat factory outbreaks.

File Photo: Meat factory workers in processing plant.
File Photo: Meat factory workers in processing plant.
Image: Shutterstock/El Nariz

MIGRANT RIGHTS CENTRE Ireland (MRCI) has written to the Taoiseach seeking a “meeting about the serious and consistent concerns” workers face in the meat sector.

The group also wants to discuss the establishment of a taskforce to examine the industry.

TheJournal.ie reported yesterday that there have been a total of 1,445 confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with 28 meat/poultry factory outbreaks across the country since the start of the pandemic.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) confirmed that in the 28 days up to 15 August, there were 330 confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with meat/poultry factory outbreaks.

The numbers above are not confined to factory/processing workers and may include community cases who are likely to have acquired their illness from one of the outbreak cases.

Additional cases are understood to be under investigation as being potentially linked to outbreaks in meat/poultry factories, but the HPSC does not have this information, TheJournal.ie was told.

The numbers are likely to be a lot higher than those released by the HSPC which also shows a two-week lag in the figures.

In a report for Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1, reporter Brian O’Connell spoke to workers about how production hasn’t changed despite new health and safety measures being introduced.

Workers raised concerns around PPE, social distancing, transport and how they feel that because some of them are here on visas organised by employers, they are in a vulnerable position and their employers know this.

“Production in the factories has increased” despite many workers being out sick or on holidays, one worker said.

This worker said some meat factory workers are covering for 2-3 people but the speed on production line has not slowed down. 

These workers also said they are in a precarious position, stating that if you complain, HR says they can bring a plane full of workers to replace them for a fraction of what they are being paid.

The account given by one meat plant worker is that there were threats the factory would close if production wasn’t kept up with, and workers would not be paid.

“I don’t feel safe,” they said. ”We have to take care of ourselves because they won’t take care of us… it’s all just for show.”

Meat Industry Ireland said in a statement that clusters have reduced to four from the peak of over 20 in mid-May. 

It said its members are “working relentlessly” to ensure the strongest measures are in place to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission. 

“The comprehensive measures in place, fully in line with HSE guidance, are working. This was confirmed at the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee hearing on 10th August by both the Department of Agriculture, which has a permanent presence in our meat plants, and by the Health & Safety Authority (HSA). 

“As things stand, the current number of clusters has reduced to four, down from twenty-two in May.

“We are happy for the Workplace Relations Commission, the Health and Safety Authority, and any other relevant state agency to inspect members’ facilities unannounced as we are confident of the standards at which we operate.”

It added primary meat processing is subject to the same employment laws as every other sector of the economy stating that members take their responsibilities as employers very seriously.

Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly said she would like the Dáil Special Covid-19 Committee to hear from the MRCI and the unions again on the issue of meat processing factories given the consistent concerns that are being raised.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said what is going on in meat processing plants is “disgraceful”.

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture, Matt Carthy said last week that there is still no clear articulation of the basis on which testing is being carried out in food processing factories despite the fact that a considerable number of Covid-19 outbreaks have emerged from these settings.

“Concerns also remain as to the exact protocols in place to manage outbreaks in meat plants themselves. From our committee exchange, it seems that the HSE are hiding behind supposed tailored responses and the announcement of new frameworks.

“In reality, it appears that the Government is effectively continuing to allow self-regulation in meat processing plants.

“It is bizarre that all of the information we have received regarding the recent outbreaks in meat plants is coming from the meat factories themselves rather than from the Health Authorities. This needs to change,” he said.

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