Northern Ireland manufacturer Ulster Carpets has defended its measures to enforce social distancing at work after it was accused of risking the health of staff.
A caller to BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show said the company, which makes luxury carpets, was not observing correct social distancing policy during “highly populated” shifts.
The business employs around 600 people in Portadown in the manufacture of luxury carpets.
It also owns other businesses in Great Britain, including loom maker Griffiths Textile Machines, and has a joint venture with Mourne Weavers.
The partner of an Ulster Carpets employee told the Nolan show the company was not enabling staff to carry out social distancing during “highly populated” shifts.
But a spokesman said: “The company is fully following government guidelines, has enacted working from home for all employees who can, has introduced measures to support 2 metre distancing in our facilities, is encouraging and enabling frequent hand washing, and has ensured enhanced cleaning is taking place on a frequent basis.
“We are also continuing to reduce the workforce on site to further increase social distancing and are consulting and communicating with our employees and their representatives on an ongoing basis.”
It said that it was following the government policy that where work could not be done from home, workers could operate if placed 2 metres apart.
“We are following this guidance and have very stringent measures in place to ensure this level of social distancing is happening.”
And questions were also raised over whether the company’s work in the manufacture of carpets can be deemed essential.
However, while its main business is in the production of luxury carpets, it is understood the owners of the company have been in discussions with government helping in the manufacture of essential items.
Yesterday, the First and deputy First Ministers said they believed all non-essential businesses should close if they could not make provision for safe working practices.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “Let me make it clear, if you are still operating, and if your staff are in work because they cannot work from home, then you must facilitate social distancing in the workplace.
“You must provide your staff with appropriate protection equipment. You cannot expect your staff to carry on as normal.
“Employers have a duty of care to their staff and to the wider public.
“Under new legislation, if you don’t get your act together on social distancing, the Executive will have no option but to take enforcement action against you.”
Meanwhile, whiskey maker Old Bushills Distillery confirmed it will close on Friday at the end of a four-day process to shut up shop.
Stephen Kelly, the chief executive of Manufacturing NI, said the UK government expected that businesses should continue in operation, with social distancing measures in place for workers who were not able to work from home.
However, a series of businesses, including non-essential retailers, pubs and restaurants, have been told they must close.
But he said some employees were incorrectly assuming that they could force the closure of employers — and that the UK government would automatically pay 80% of their wages under the emergency job retention scheme.
“The only certainty is for businesses that government has told should close but there’s no certainty for anybody else. Workers are assuming they can go home and Boris Johnson will pick up their bills. But that’s not the case. People are either jumping to their own conclusions, or being encouraged to by some other group, but that’s not a risk that employers are willing to take.”
Meanwhile, TUV leader and MLA Jim Allister said the Executive had been too prescriptive in its list of essential businesses which could stay open. He said the Executive should adopt the approach of Scotland, which had advised that traders like self-employed gardeners and window cleaners as they brought good to the community, and could observe social distancing while working.