Oireachtas Committee

Dáil hears 'institutional racism' led to data breach over meat factory workers' Covid-19 test results

The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland said there had been a ‘gross and serious breach of confidentiality’.

LEVEL OF “INSTITUTIONAL racism and discrimination” in the health service led to a serious data breach when employers were told of coronavirus test results before meat factory workers who were tested, it has been claimed.

Edel McGinley, director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), described the practice as a “gross and serious breach of confidentiality”.

She told the Special Oireachtas Covid-19 committee that comments made by a senior health official about the scandal were “deeply worrying”.

In May, it was revealed that workers’ test results were being shared first with employers before workers themselves.

The incidents relate to widespread screening of meat factory workers, with public health officials alerting employers in the first instance in an effort to trigger prompt infection control steps.

When the practice was made public, the HSE said it would end.

However, McGinley said it remains “unclear” if new guidelines or training have been issued for staff who are carrying out contact tracing in factories.

She added: “Deeply worrying are the revelations made by Director of Public Health in the mid-west, Dr Mai Mannix, while speaking at a HSE briefing on 5 June.

“Her comments reveal a level of institutional racism and discrimination that led to this very serious data breach.”

Mannix had been speaking about the length of time it took to contact people who do not speak English.

She said at the time: “So you’re potentially looking at five people in my department to take four hours to go through to contact each of these types of people.”

McGinley claimed these comments discriminate people from a migrant background and are in breach of their public sector duty.

“This undermines trust in the HSE, leaving workers and their families exposed, and without accessible information to isolate if necessary,” she added.

Meat factory clusters

Irish meat factories have been hit with clusters of cases, with more than 800 workers infected with the virus so far.

Research carried out by MRCI reveal that almost half of workers feel that their employers do not enforce Covid-19 safety measures, while 48% said there are still not sufficient measures in place.

The report also found that in workplaces with clusters, just 30% of workers felt their employers took effective action to keep them safe, with 67% claiming their employer had not done enough to prioritise their safety.

McGinley called for a taskforce to be set up to look at the terms and conditions for workers.

She also raised issues around work permits, describing how difficult it is for workers to assert their rights.

“Workers report to us that they cannot choose not to come to work if ill, or seek improved conditions for fear of losing their employment permit and immigration status,” she added.

Sinn Féin’s Matt Cathy queried whether any staff returned to work before they received their Covid-19 test results.

Bríd McKeown, workplace rights coordinator at MRCI, said some staff only received their results when they approached their employer.

“We also have anecdotal evidence that some felt their employers were withholding positive results from workers who were not displaying symptoms to keep up production efforts,” she told the committee.

‘Systemic exploitation’

Labour TD Duncan Smith said the meat processing factories are the “largest systemic work exploitation” in the State.

He added: “Were there any incidents where the State provided protective equipment in meat plants? It is my view that, not only have many employers let these workers down, but the State have abandoned the workers in these plants.”

McKeown said: “Of the people we spoke to, 15% didn’t have contracts, 9% weren’t sure if they had contracts and a further 13% said their contracts didn’t reflect their terms and conditions.

“We have heard recent reports that over the last two years, workers are being given new contracts on the factory floor and told to sign them. The contracts are in English and they haven’t been translated or explained and are intimated when there is resistance to sign contracts.

“Migrant workers are extremely poorly treated, there is a day-to-day lack of respect and value bestowed and a huge lack of trust from workers.”

The main nationalities are Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Latvian, Moldovan, Slovakian, Brazilian, South African, Botswanan and Filipino.

Workers also reported to the MRCI that EU and non-EU migrant workers are over-represented on the factory floors, meaning they are on lower paid jobs.

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