As nationwide serial testing for Covid-19 is introduced at meat processing plants this week, it has been revealed that many meat plant workers are petrified of contracting Covid-19 and in many cases attend work even if they are unwell, because there is no sick pay.
Union officials including Patricia King of SIPTU, representing workers, portrayed the difficulties of a day in the life of a meat worker, during last Thursday’s Special Committee on Covid-19 Response debate of ‘The Situation in Meat Processing Plants’.
Those gathered also heard how workers of different nationalities are being brought in to work in factories without any induction in their own language.
For some communities that have been in Ireland for a while, like the Polish community, a number of factories have translation services available or supervisors who speak the language. But, for some recent arrivals, including Chinese workers in Munster, for example, “there is little support”.
And it appears to be the same for Brazilians, East Timorese and other nationalities.
There are 15,338 meat plant workers in Ireland of whom 8,896 are migrant workers, said Cork South West Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns. “The non-EU workers are bound to their employers by their work permits.”
“Some 90% of workers get no sick pay so they are of course more likely to turn up for work if they have symptoms of Covid-19”.
History has shown us that the meat industry has very considerable political clout and that the government has turned a blind eye to the industry’s scandalous failings in the past. pic.twitter.com/rAnHfYfwtj— Holly Cairns TD (@HollyCairnsTD) August 14, 2020
Greg Ennis of SIPTU told the committee meeting, “Irish meat plant operatives work an average of 4.7 weeks per year more than their EU counterparts and rank bottom of the list on actual hourly wages received”.
“A feature of the continental system is the high level of employer social insurance, which ensures that most workers in our EU peer group receive acceptable illness benefit”
The meeting also heard how workers here frequently live in overcrowded conditions with a lack of necessary space and privacy.
Mr Ennis said, “I have been reliably advised in recent days that upwards of 40 migrant meat plant workers are sharing rooms and accommodation in a certain town in Offaly. Should this prove to be the case and if we are truly serious about defeating Covid transmission within the meat industry, this hot bedding of workers has to stop”
Kildare North Sinn Fein TD Réada Cronin said, “Wage deductions are made for accommodation. It reminds me of the indentured servitude we hear about in the Middle East where migrant workers are abused like this.”
“We are well aware of the issues,” said Ms King.
“There is a very large body of opposition to workers having any voice in the industry and there is a reason for that.
“With a production pace at this level, it is the focus of the employers.
“We can look at the top ten companies operating in the sector, the top company had a turnover of €2.3bn in 2019, and the second company had a turnover of €2.2bn.
“There is big money to be made, and their focus is on keeping the production lines as fast and as lean as possible. The model is to work people as hard as they can for as little as they can for as long as they can.
“It is the model and the companies will resist any infiltration by us in trying to have discussions and these companies are helped by a lack of legislation in this country.”
Nora Labo, Cork Operative Butchers Society (representing the Independent Workers’ Union) said, “I will give an example of a poultry plant that is unionised with our union. This poultry plant processes 45,000 chickens a day with 90 staff on the production floor. We have calculated that if every member of staff got a pay increase of €1 an hour, it would only affect the price per chicken by 8 cent. This would probably still keep these chickens competitive. Profits are at an all-time high. Production never stopped, and actually increased during the pandemic. All these workers are agency workers, and the agency is getting €15 per hour for each worker, but the workers are only getting €10. The head supervisor in this factory, who has been there 13 years, is paid €12 an hour, with no premium for overtime.”
In Ireland, there have been 1,450 Covid-19 cases in meat plant workers, and clusters of more than 100 cases in five meat plants in the recent resurgence in the midlands.
The committee meeting heard how the Cork Operative Butchers Society branch of the Independent Workers Union has been supporting workers in meat plants and has been in daily contact with workers of different nationalities in several meat plants around Munster. The union is constantly striving to provide translation for languages needed for organising the diverse workforce.
Nora Labo of the union said, “We are convinced that the reason Ireland has witnessed so many worrying outbreaks in meat plants in the past months is due to the workers’ substandard employment and living conditions which are the result of the industry’s long-term disregard for the well-being of its staff.”
“These problems are aggravated by the unscrupulous practices of the work placement agencies through which many of the workers in this sector are employed.
“Based on our membership, a high percentage, perhaps 40% or 50% of these workers are employed through agencies.”
Miss Labo said, “Many workers we know are being housed by their employment agencies which, seeking to maximise profit from the accommodation they provide to their employees, crowd as many people as possible into each house they let.
“This reckless behaviour on the agencies’ part also led to people being moved from one shared house to another during the height of the pandemic in an effort to keep each house full so as not to lose income. Our union has documented several such cases.
“The workers housed by the employment agencies never get a proper contract for their paid accommodation, even after several years of living in the same place, so they can be moved around or evicted without notice, both of which have happened since March to workers we know. It is obvious that this dismal housing situation favours the spread of Covid-19 among workers. Many meat plants are in quite remote areas and the employers make no effort to provide any transport. On a tight budget, the workers car pool, and they fill the cars to capacity. This has continued throughout the pandemic as most employers make no effort to facilitate the safe and socially distant transport option.”
Miss Labo said, “A great number of workers, all Romanian, were for years cheated out of their social security rights in Ireland by the employment agency which was hiring them to work in several meat plants in Munster.
“ For many years, all of these workers have had no annual leave, no right to illness benefit, no rights to child allowance, had no PPS numbers, and were de facto invisible in Ireland.
“This agency employed all these Romanian nationals as self-employed contractors declared in Poland, so all the workers’ contributions were sent to the Polish and not the Irish Revenue.
She said the Independent Workers’ Union has filed hundreds of complaints to the Workplace Relations Commission.
She also told the Committee meeting that workers at a dairy food production plant in West Cork with “very obvious symptoms” back in May were forced to continue working by their employer.
These workers, the committee was told by Miss Labo, “were not purposely trying to hide their symptoms but wanted to stay home”.
The employers, however, insisted that these workers continue coming into work and there was a “significant walkout” of all the factory employees on that shift because workers feared for their safety.