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Coronavirus: Executive split on closures as Linden Foods staff walk out over lack of social distancing

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Workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Staff observe social distancing outside Linden Foods

Staff observe social distancing outside Linden Foods

Workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Around 60 workers refused to start work at a Dungannon food company on Friday due to their concerns over social distancing.

Staff at Linden Foods in Dungannon instead protested outside the company's premises, demanding immediate talks with management over infection control measures.

It comes after deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said that any company found not adhering to the guidance around social distancing would be punished.

Speaking at the Executive's daily briefing on the coronavirus on Thursday she said that all non essential companies must close and that any company ignoring the guidance could lose out on Government contracts in future.

Citing the case of manufacturer Ulster Carpets she said that carpet manufacturing was non essential and the company should close.

However First Minister Arlene Foster told the BBC's The View programme on Thursday evening that companies could remain open as long as they adhere to social distancing guidelines.

"It is important that we allow people to continue if they can put in place very safe working practices to protect their employees," the DUP leader said.

"It won't be a surprise to anyone that there may be different emphasis from people in the Executive, but let me be very clear, we want to be able to come out of this in as best a way as we possibly can. That's true for our public health and it's true for our economic health as well."

Ulster Carpets remains open, despite Ms O'Neill's comments. On Thursday the company said they would be remaining open while following the guidelines.

The Executive is set to release an updated list of what is defined as essential and non essential businesses.

Unite Regional Officer for workers at Linden Foods, Brian Hewitt, said there had been issues between management and staff over social distancing for workers on the boning line, in the canteen, changing areas and at entry and exit points.

"The company's management has provided no additional wash facilities and failed to stagger breaks," Mr Hewitt said.

"Workers have been reporting to Unite that those exhibiting symptoms are still allowed to work as are those with family members who are self-isolating as result of being in the high risk health category. Everyone needs to take responsibility but company’s actions are putting workers needlessly at further risk.

"In desperation and fear for their health and well-being, this morning approximately sixty workers refused to enter the workplace and sought assurances from management that two metres spacing would be adopted throughout."

Mr Hewitt said that the company had so far ignoring the concerns of the workers.

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Workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Workers outside the Linden Foods factory in Dungannon. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

In a statement Linden Foods said their utmost priority continues to be the health, safety and wellbeing of staff

"In light of the evolving pandemic we have been actively implementing a range of measures across all our sites to provide a safe working environment," a company spokesperson said.

"We are adhering to government guidance and continue to actively take feedback from our teams on the implementation of the measures taken. Today we have approximately 40 employees from our total workforce who did not attend work.

"We have doubled the size of our canteens, have erected new multiple handwashing units at the entrance to all our sites, increased sanitising units which are closely monitored, staggered breaks, erected new temporary changing facilities, carrying out temperature checks on all employees twice daily, reviewed social distancing and are installing screens and respacing work areas, increased PPE and undertaken additional training of our teams.

"We fully appreciate and respect our teams who continue to attend work as key workers, ensuring that the food supply chain functions smoothly to keep the nation fed."

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Photopress

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Speaking on Thursday Ms O'Neill said that companies must take responsibility for staff safety.

"Today we are still hearing reports about workers being exploited during this public health emergency. They're being given no option by their employers other than to go to work, whenever it's not safe for them to do so," the Sinn Fein vice-President said.

"That has to stop. It must stop immediately. And shame on any employer that is exploiting their workforce at this moment in time.

"Non-essential businesses - close your doors, stop using your workers in this way, send them home and let them stay there. And if you don't, we will have to take action against you."

Linden Foods has been contacted in relation to this story.

Belfast Telegraph