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Living conditions of migrant workers at meat plants 'should be considered before criticism'

The Chief Medical Officer has said health officials are also looking at transmission risks for these employees outside of work.

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CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised about criticism of migrant workers at meat plants who are not able to adhere to social distancing guidance at home due to their sometimes cramped living arrangements. 

There have been 15 clusters of infection and almost 700 cases of Covid-19 in meat processing plants across the country.

At Sunday’s HSE weekly Briefing, Chief Operations Officer Anne O’Connor said that a regional multi-agency outbreak control team for each of the 15 clusters in meat processing plants has been set up. O’Connor said interim guidance was issued to prevent further spread of Covid-19 in these plants on Friday.

She also said the HSE has been carrying out testing sweeps in some plants, taking samples from all workers.

Last week The Herald reported gardaí had visited a meat factory in Longford where half of employees had tested positive and warned workers that breaches of social-distancing outside of work would not be tolerated. 

However union representatives and migrant rights organisations have said some workers in processing plants are not in a position to adhere to social distancing guidelines at home due to their living arrangements, with some sharing rooms with co-workers or even employees from other plants. 

Fiona Finn, CEO of Nasc, the migrant and refugee rights centre, said these circumstances should be considered “before we criticise people for not obeying the rules”. 

“We already know that Covid-19 has hit the people with the lowest incomes in our society the hardest; they find it the most difficult to social-distance or self-isolate. They are more likely to be living in multi-occupancy houses and sharing cramped bedrooms with non-relatives,” she said. 

They are less likely to have gardens and so rely on public outdoor spaces near their homes. They cannot afford to bulk-buy food and may have no place to store several days of food supplies. They usually rely on pre-pay power that needs to be topped up regularly.
They are less likely to own their own cars or be able to afford to take the mandatory lessons needed to gain an Irish driving licence so they car-pool to work or to the shops. They don’t have the support networks to look after them if they become ill and need to self-isolate.

“Before we criticise people for not obeying the rules, we need to ask firstly whether people truly understood those rules and secondly, whether it was actually possible for them to do so.”

Finn also said the risk of migrant workers being exposed to the disease has been compounded by a lack of information in languages other than English about what to do if you begin experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 or the availability of financial supports if you cannot work.

“For many of us, we may feel as if we have been bombarded with information; every time we open a newspaper, listen to the radio or turn on the TV there are public health information notices. If you are not an English-speaker, there is a striking lack of information,” she said.

Siptu organiser Greg Ennis said the living and travel arrangements are just one of a number of risk factors in this situation.

“There are a number of key reasons for the spike in the meat industry and no other. Firstly the close proximity, working shoulder to shoulder. Most employers have been working well with us to try to address that, including the use of PPE,” he said.

“You have industrial scale air circulation pumps, cooling systems that circulate cold air though the plant. That could be a means of spreading the virus – now I’m no health expert but it’s possible. You’ve also got bottlenecks in canteens and toilet facilities and that’s just down to the way these plants were constructed, they weren’t set up to operate during a pandemic.”

Ennis said some workers have “no choice” but to share accommodation and carpool in and out of work because of their “relatively low paid employment”.

“We’ve been calling for mandatory temperature testing in the plants. It’s not a panacea but it’s a preventative measures that could hopefully help to stop the spread of Covid-19 in the workforce.”

He also said there is “significant fear”, particularly among migrant workers about speaking out about working conditions at manufacturing or processing plants. 

Ennis said he wrote to Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed on Friday calling for a sector specific strategy that would bring together all of the stakeholders, including suppliers, processors and workers.

“This is potentially a perfect storm, I don’t want to see this thing become another nursing homes crisis.”

Edel McGinley, director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, said the organisation has been approached by workers from various meat factories who feel their health safety at work has not been prioritised. 

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“Workers are frightened and angry and unsure of what procedures are in place to protect them,” she said. 

“Many employees in meat factories earn low wages and work without sick pay schemes. Like many people across Ireland, some factory workers also live in rented and shared accommodation.”

She said some employers at the beginning of the lockdown had been slow to put in place safety measures such as staggered breaks, floor markings, shields between work stations and signage in different languages. 

McGinley said MRCI is concerned that clusters across the meat sector have not been “fully or consistently responded to”.

The organisation is calling on the minister to close workplaces where Covid-19 has been detected for a two-week period to carry out a deep-clean. She said workers should be paid for this time and after this period there should be a staggered reopening, with oversight from the HSE and Health and Safety Authority (HSA). 

When asked yesterday evening about the outbreaks in meat processing plants, and in particular the living and travel arrangements of workers, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said all of these situations were being considered.

“There are, in relation to some of the individual as well as to the group of meat processing plants, outbreak control teams in place, including a national one.

“The measures that will be considered in relation to those will include measures for the workplace itself and measures that might deal with any of the risks of transmission that occur for people working in those environments but outside of work.

“So if people are travelling together, as you say, or people are sharing accommodation or if people are socialising together, all of those kinds of measures, including trying to reach people in languages where English or other languages are a challenge, that will be considered.”

Guidance has been issued to all meat processing plants cross the country around these issues in the last number of days. 

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