Workers in the meat processing industry are “petrified” of contracting Covid-19 at work, a committee has heard.
The Siptu trade union divisional organiser Greg Ennis told the Special Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 that nine out of 10 workers do not have access to sick pay and he said this was a significant contributory factor to the spread of Covid-19.
Mr Ennis said: “They remain petrified of contracting the disease but feel that they must walk that tightrope and in many cases walk that tightrope even if they are unwell.”
He said the conditions in meat processing plants heighten conditions for the spread of the virus.
It is notable that circa 90% of workers within the industry do not have sick pay, forcing vulnerable workers who may have Covid-19 symptoms to go into workGreg Ennis, Siptu
Mr Ennis said: “It is now beyond doubt that the meat processing industry contains unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19 which has previously caused 1,115 meat plant workers to become infected in 20 clusters as of early July.
“These vectors include close contact with other workers, bottlenecks in canteens and toilets, noise pollution as workers shout and this creates droplets. These droplets are then circulated through industrial air systems.
“There are relatively low wages which cause workers to share accommodation and car pool and in many cases share rooms with other workers who work in the industry.”
“It is notable that circa 90% of workers within the industry do not have sick pay, forcing vulnerable workers who may have Covid-19 symptoms to go into work.”
Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary Patricia King told the committee: “Meat processing plants are very vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19 and should be regarded as high risk in terms of virus spread.
“Meat processing is labour intensive and involves physically intensive work around production lines and workers working in close proximity, which makes social distancing difficult to achieve while also language differences can often impede good communication.
“Despite the fact that this is a highly profitable, heavily subsidised industry, low pay combined with deficient terms and conditions including the absence of sick pay schemes are common across the sector. Workers may often live in crowded or congregated accommodation settings, while transport to and from work may not be conducive to social distancing.”
Nora Labo, of the Independent Workers’ Union, told the committee there is no reason why working in a meat plant should make someone more vulnerable to getting Covid-19 than any other environment.
She said: “There is no intrinsic reason why working in a meat plant should be more conducive to contracting Covid-19 than any other environment.
“We are convinced the reason why Ireland has seen so many worrying outbreaks in meat plants in the past few months is down to the workers’ substandard working and living conditions which are the industry’s long-term disregard for the wellbeing of its staff.
“These problems are aggravated by the unscrupulous practices of the work placement agencies to which many of the workers in this sector are employed. Our union estimates up to 40-50% of workers are employed though these agencies.”
Ms Labo said Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants are due to a variety of factors, with low pay and unsuitable accommodation the key drivers.
“As most meat plants are in rural areas, there is a shortage of suitable accommodation and most meat workers are paid minimum wage with no overtime premium and budgets force them into shared accommodation,” she said.
“Being foreign and having limited English is a disadvantage so many workers are being housed by their employment agencies. They are seeking to maximise profit from the accommodation they are providing to employees.”
They are there to protect and maintain the health and safety of workers and when someone contracts Covid, they are not even notifiedPatricia King, ICTU
Ms Labo said the “dismal” housing situation fuels the spread of coronavirus among workers.
She claimed workers are often moved around without notice and do not receive rental contracts.
Ms Labo said employers at meat plants make no effort to transport workers and there is little public transport in rural areas, which forces workers to carpool – further increasing the potential spread of coronavirus.
Ms King said there is a “major flaw” in the current regulations that means employers do not have to notify the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) if a worker becomes infected with Covid.
She said this must be rectified, adding: “It is untenable that we have a Health and Safety Authority that is assigned in law for overseeing the implementation of all aspects of the protocol and who have the power to inspect workplaces and order closure where appropriate.
“They are there to protect and maintain the health and safety of workers and when someone contracts Covid, they are not even notified. They don’t in my judgment, and all the indicators to me are that they don’t want to be notified. They don’t want this task, and from day one I have had this argument with the Government about this.”