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'All sorts of a mess': Dáil Covid committee hears from trade unions about meat plant workers' 'tale of woe'

Meat plants accused of ‘union-busting tactics’ by a trade union representative.

Image: Shutterstock/Dreamsquare

TRADE UNION REPRESENTATIVES this morning called for all inspections of meat plants by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to be unannounced from now on and for Covid-19 to be classified as an occupational injury.

Representatives from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Siptu and the Independent Workers Union were fielding questions from TDs at a meeting of the Special Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 Response.

It comes after the travel restrictions were reimposed in Laois, Offaly and Kildare last week following outbreaks of the virus at meat processing plants. 

Greg Ennis, divisional manager of Siptu’s manufacturing section, said he was not satisfied that employers had implemented recommendations made by his union to the committee in May.

Asked about the testing of workers by Sinn Féin enterprise and employment spokesperson Louise O’Reilly, Ennis described the situation as “a tale of woe”.

He said that workers in some meat plants in Kildare who were tested last week still have not received their test results.

“I have seen situations and be made aware of situations where workers have been tested and allowed back into the workplace, and they didn’t get the results in some cases for four or five days. I believe some workers who were tested last week were allowed back into the workplace,” he said.

“We cannot prioritise profits over the health and safety of our workers,” he said in response to a question from Fine Gael TD for Kildare North Bernard Durkan.

Ennis called for the creation of HSA compliance officers “with the sole responsibility for policing Covid within the meat industry”.

“And if [the HSA] needs to be beefed up, beef it up — no pun intended — because what happened in Kildare and other counties for the last number of months is not acceptable.

He added, “As far as I’m concerned as of today, there should be no more announced inspections. Everything should be unannounced.”

Responding to Green Party TD for Waterford Marc Ó Cathasaigh, who asked what is the importance of unannounced workplace inspections, Ennis said, “If you tell someone you’re coming to their house for an evening dinner, they’ll probably have the kitchen clean and the food cooked.

“But if someone arrives hungry to your door and you have nothing prepared, there might be a bit of a scramble around the house.”

Nora Labo, an organiser in Munster with the Independent Workers Union, accused the meat plants of “union-busting techniques” in its treatment of foreign workers

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“We have had many cases of workers who have unionised or have unionised colleagues, whose relatives are then denied employment in the same factories, who are blacklisted in the whole area from all the factories in the whole area,” she alleged.

Patricia King, general secretary of ICTU, said that it is “untenable” that the HSA is not automatically notified when a worker contracts Covid.

She said, “All the indicators to me are that they don’t want to be notified. They don’t want this task. From day one, I have had this argument with government representatives and I’m blue in the face writing to them on this.

“If we have a HSA charged with the protection and the prevention of injury to workers in workplaces, and they’re not even notified, they don’t do the inspections, they don’t go to the place to find out what happened, they don’t go to give advice as to what should happen to prevent it again, then, we will arrive in all sorts of a mess.”

The Committee will hear from representatives of the meat industry this afternoon. 

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