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Meat plant workers have a choice between going to work with Covid symptoms or not getting paid, Dáil told

Alan Kelly TD said we can’t have a situation where workers are going into meat plants having taken paracetamol or Calpol to hide their temperature.

There has been a call for workers to get statutory sick pay.
There has been a call for workers to get statutory sick pay.
Image: Shutterstock/Picsfive

MEAT PLANT WORKERS have a choice between going to work with a symptom of Covid or not getting paid, Labour leader Alan Kelly told the Dáil today.

His party is proposing new legislation that if passed would ensure workers who fall sick continue to get paid for up to six weeks.

It is reported today that representatives of employers in the meat-processing sector are refusing to engage on an industry-wide agreement on sick pay and pensions for staff.

Since the localised lockdowns in Kildare, Offaly and Laois, the spotlight has been placed on meat plant clusters and how the absence of sick pay may have contributed to the high number of Covid-19 in the factories.

Last week, TheJournal.ie reported that the latest figures show that a total of 1,445 confirmed Covid-19 cases are associated with 28 meat/poultry factory outbreaks across the country since the start of the pandemic.

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

Kelly said Ireland is one of only five countries, with Cyprus, Denmark, Greece and Portugal, which does not have sick pay on a statutory basis.

“We cannot have a situation where workers going into meat plants or other settings take paracetamol or Calpol to hide their temperature, that is stark. It needs to be eliminated for the workers and for society. The Government must do this. There is no choice when it comes to our position with the virus.

“The Government cannot have credibility if it asks other counties to go into lock down as it did with the three counties which have done so, without ensuring there is sick pay for low paid workers who had a very stark choice of whether or not to go into work. Of course they should not do so but they would not get paid otherwise,” Kelly said.

“Sick pay is an important issue when it comes to the potential spread of Covid, especially clusters. People who should not be going into work are going into work. It is as simple as that,” he said.

Kelly told the Taoiseach that the Acting Chief Medical Officer and the head of the HSE have called for such measures to be introduced.

“The Taoiseach is asking us all to follow public health advice and we are, and the Taoiseach is always saying we should. The Taoiseach now needs to follow the advice on this specific issue,” said Kelly.

The Taoiseach said the Government introduced the Covid-19 illness benefit which ensures that €330 is available per week to employees and self-employed workers.

“It is paid for two weeks where a person is medically certified as self-isolated, which can be extended for a further two weeks and for a maximum of ten weeks where a person is medically certified as being diagnosed with Covid-19,” said the Taoiseach.

While the sick pay is not permanent, the Taoiseach said the Government extended the Covid-19 illness benefit to the end of March 2021.

Micheál Martin said serial testing is now under way in the three counties in respect of meat plants. The positivity rate is at about 0.5%, he said.

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He acknowledged that there are issues in the meat processing industry that need to be addressed, but stopped short of committing to a taskforce being set up, something migrant rights groups have called for.

“We also have to look at the entire meat processing industry from end to end. I refer not just to the workplace itself but to the accommodation, its nature and quality as well as transport to and from work. These cannot be seen as three separate pieces but as a continuum.

“While the rate might be 0.5% in the serial testing programme, somewhere else along that continuum, either in terms of transport arrangements or housing, the virus could be developing again and could come into the factory, where it can spread very quickly because of the conditions that pertain in meat factories,” he said. 

The Taoiseach committed to visiting the areas that were in localised lockdown stating that he did not want to do so during the period of the severe restrictions.

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