Coronavirus: Claims of 40 meat workers in Offaly living in shared accommodation

Coronavirus: Claims of 40 meat workers in Offaly living in shared accommodation
A Covid-19 testing facility in Tullamore, Co Offaly, where nine people have tested positive for the virus in the Carroll Cuisinea meat factory. PA Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Siptu Divisional Organiser for the Manufacturing Industry Greg Ennis will appear before the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 tomorrow as the recalled committee discusses the outbreaks in meat factories which have seen three counties returned to lockdown.

In Mr Ennis's opening statement, he outlines how the union has been warning since March that meat plants contain "unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19". 

To the beginning of July, 1,115 workers in factories had contracted the virus across 20 clusters. In the most recent outbreaks, over 300 staff have been confirmed to have caught Covid-19.

Mr Ennis will tell the committee that the conditions both in factories and in the employment of staff are creating issues.

"These vectors include close proximity working, bottlenecks in canteens/toilets, noise pollution causing workers to shout to communicate, which create droplets with these droplets being circulated through the industrial air cooling systems, relatively low wages causing workers to car pool, share accommodation and in many cases share rooms within that accommodation. 

"It is notable that circa 90% of workers within the industry do not have sick pay, forcing vulnerable workers to go to work, even if they are feeling unwell with possible Covid symptoms."

Mr Ennis will also tell the committee that he has been told of one Offaly town where 40 staff are living together.

"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. Surely, it’s not an Ireland that anyone would want to be proud of or indeed be associated with?

"Very recent commentary has emerged of workers being redeployed from one meat plant to another to finish production at weekends, causing so much concern about contagion, that existing regular employees refused to go back to work until their safety concerns were addressed."

A spokesperson for Meat Industry Ireland will "assure the Committee that the industry has worked diligently to protect employees throughout the course of this pandemic and continues to do so".

"It took very extensive measures early in the crisis to protect workers and to ensure business continuity. It continues to update and enhance its protocols in line with all relevant public health guidance. Vigilance remains the priority. MII members are proud of their committed workforce and we commend them and all those in the extended supply chain for their efforts during these difficult times."

The committee will hear from Health and Safety Authority CEO Dr Sharon McGuinness, who will tell the committee that the agency has carried out over 2,800 Covid-19 protocol inspections, including 34 inspections at meat plants as part of the national outbreak containment team.

"Since March, our Workplace Contact Unit has dealt with over 8,000 contacts, 66% of which related to COVID-19.

"Among these were 21 complaints relating to meat processing or food processing plants, which involved 12 specific employers, and 15 requests for information related to meat processing plants."

The committee will also hear from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and DCU Professor Anthony Staines, who is asking that Ireland pursue a strategy of eliminating the virus as opposed to living with it.

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