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Committee to hear 'more than 40 meat plant workers in one town sharing accommodation'

Union representatives will tell committee members that the industry contains ‘unrivalled vectors’ for the transmission of the virus.

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THE OIREACHTAS COVID-19 committee will today hear from representatives of workers in the meat factory, who will outline how close working conditions and low pay resulted in the recent clusters of infection in meat processing plants.

There have now been 1,450 cases confirmed among meat plant workers, with clusters of more than 100 in five separate meat plants in the country.

The committee this morning will hear from Siptu organiser Greg Ennis that the industry contains “unrivalled vectors” for the transmission of the virus, such as close proximity working, bottlenecks in canteens and toilets, noise pollution causing workers to shout, relatively low wages resulting in car pooling and shared accommodation.

In many cases workers are not only living in the same accommodation but sharing rooms with co-workers.

Ennis will tell the committee he has been informed in recent days that upwards of 40 migrant workers from meat plants are sharing rooms or accommodation in one Offaly town.

He will state that this “hot bedding” of workers will have to stop if the government is serious about defeating transmission within the meat industry.

Ennis will also tell the committee that 90% of workers in the industry do not have sick pay, “forcing vulnerable workers to go to work, even if they are feeling unwell”.

Where large Covid outbreaks have been established and production lines shut down, we cannot have a situation that we believe occurred recently, wherein other workers in that same employment, were tested, went back to work (allegedly with the knowledge of the HSE) to deal with perishable product and some four days later, they find out that they had tested positive for Covid.

He will tell committee members that workers should be immediately removed from the workplace without loss of earnings until it has been inspected by the HSA and they have tested negative. 

“We have already seen the tragic death of one Covid-19 meat plant worker on the island of Ireland, we do not need to see another. Meat may be perishable, but workers must not be so”.

Ennis will call on the government to ban sub-contracting and bogus self-employment within the industry as so-called sole traders are missing out on leave and welfare benefits as a result. 

“Licensed direct employment is the way forward in this regard and an end to agency working in the industry is absolutely necessary now.”

The committee will also hear from general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) Patricia King about the need to classify the disease as an occupational injury which would provide statutory protection to workers. 

“The effect of its exclusion from the scope of current regulations is that the employer is not obliged to notify the Health and Safety Authority of incidents of employees having contracted the disease in the course of their employment,” she will tell the committee.

“Consequently the HSA cannot undertake an investigation so as to establish how it may have occurred. Nor can it advise or give instructions on the prevention of similar occurrences.”

Ictu is also calling on the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to conduct random, unannounced inspections of all meat processing facilities.

Meat Industry Ireland

Later the committee will also hear from Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which met with unions earlier this week to discuss solutions, including regular blanket testing of workers.

Chairman of MII Philip Carroll will tell the committee that the HSE identified that many of the positive cases that emerged in meat plants were among people who had shown no symptoms and who had therefore continued to go to work.

“This process identified clusters where the vast majority of the positive cases were asymptomatic, a finding which reinforced the insidious and indiscriminate nature of the virus and the challenges associated in identifying potential cases.”

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He will tell the committee that there has been a “rush to blame and complain” that nothing has been done to mitigate the virus spread in this setting.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Kildare Chilling case, this company survived the high points of late April and early May, recording no virus cases and when other clusters formed. So, there is no simple conclusion that can be drawn from what has now emerged.”

MII has started a pilot research project that will examine whether there are conditions within the Irish meat plant environment that accelerate the spread of Covid-19 and how they can be addressed. Carroll will also tell the committee that members welcome unannounced inspections.

“I want to assure the Committee that our industry has worked diligently to protect employees throughout the course of this pandemic and continues to do so.”

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