Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the rights of workers in the meat industry need strengthening, and collective representation for those workers is important.
“That will form part of the Government’s continuing engagement with the industry,” he told the Dáil last week.
Questioned by opposition leaders on the meat industry’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic, he said: “We also have to look at the entire meat processing industry from end to end. I refer not just to the workplace itself, but to the accommodation, its nature, and quality, as well as transport to and from work.
“While the rate might be 0.5% in the serial testing programme, somewhere else along that continuum, either in terms of transport arrangements or housing, the virus could be developing again and could come into the factory, where it can spread very quickly because of the conditions that pertain in meat factories.”
The Taoiseach was told by Labour leader Alan Kelly: “We cannot have a situation where workers going into meat plants or other settings take paracetamol or Calpol to hide their temperature. If they have a choice between going to work with a symptom of Covid or not getting paid, it is a fairly stark choice. That needs to be eliminated for the workers and for society.”
Pressed by opposition leaders on sick pay, the Taoiseach told Mr Kelly the Government will work constructively with him on the Labour Party’s bill to provide sick leave and parental leave for workers.
“We have already moved ahead to create an infrastructure around Covid-19 illness payments, particularly in direct provision and meat plant contexts to make it very clear that every worker in such situations will get sick pay,” said the Taoiseach.
“I take Deputy Kelly’s point on the legislation that he is talking about, which is to create a more permanent provision around sick pay and the right of workers to this.”
Mr Kelly had told the Dáil that only Ireland, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, and Portugal do not have sick pay on a statutory basis. “Sick pay is an important issue when it comes to the potential spread of Covid, especially clusters. People who should not be going into work are going into work. It is as simple as that. They need to be taken on. We need to ensure there is a legislative provision and a statutory scheme to ensure workers do not have to choose between not getting paid and going in with symptoms of Covid,” said Mr Kelly.
“Workers do not need to go into situations which put society in a vulnerable place. The way to deal with that is to ensure there is proper provision of sick pay across the board, especially in low-paid jobs.”
Paul Murphy of Solidarity People Before Profit said meat factory owners are refusing to provide proper sick pay for workers.
“We need proper sick pay for all workers so that if they feel unwell they do not feel compelled to go into work,” he said.
“This means following the example of Germany and banning the use of subcontractors and bogus self-employment in the meat plants to stop bosses from getting out of providing workers with the rights to which they are entitled. The trade unions must be allowed full access to the plants to organise the workers.”
Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats said many of those who work in meat plants are low paid and often are migrant workers working in poor conditions.
“Many of those who work in the industry are not organised. Very often, the employer organises the work permit, and is also the landlord. It is not an equal relationship and this is fundamental to the problem, as is our cheap food policy which also has consequences for farmers and consequences with exploitation. Covid-19 has demonstrated just how interconnected we are.”
The Taoiseach noted that the Government approved the extension of Covid-19 illness benefit to the end of March, 2021.
“I discussed this with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, over a month ago. We considered how we get into the direct provision centres and meat plants to make sure workers know their rights and entitlements and do not fear having to put their hands up to say they have symptoms.”
It is understood that several meat processors already offer illness benefits, but the Siptu trade union seeks a scheme of full sick pay for three months, and half pay for the following three months, along with pay increases to at least the “living wage” of €12.30 per hour.
The Labour Party’s Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 also seeks to ensure that workers who fall sick continue to get paid for up to six weeks.