'Dangerous working conditions' in Irish meat sector, report finds

The report heard from more than 150 workers across 13 counties in a variety of roles, including de-boners, cutters and trimmers, kill line operators, packing hall operators and chill room operatives
'Dangerous working conditions' in Irish meat sector, report finds

According to the report, almost 60% of meat workers in Ireland say they have been injured in work. File picture

Almost 60% of meat workers in Ireland say they have been injured in work.

That's according to a new report from the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) detailing “dangerous working conditions” in the meat sector in Ireland.

The injuries, according to the MRCI, include regular lacerations and bruises, repetitive strain, chronic back pain, skin disorders, eye injuries, bone fractures, loss of fingers and limbs, burns, and respiratory problems.

The report heard from more than 150 workers across 13 counties in a variety of roles, including de-boners, cutters and trimmers, kill line operators, packing hall operators and chill room operatives.

The survey found that 58% of workers didn’t know who the Health and Safety Officer was while a fifth of respondents said that injuries were an expected occupational hazard.

In one case study, a worker described the health and safety in a meat plant as “terrible”.

He said: “The weight of the animal is too heavy for one person here in Ireland. In South America, the cows are lighter – when we ask for someone to help us lift it, we’re told no and shouted at. My wrists are really damaged from this.

“I see people who have worked for years in these factories and are getting older, and I see the management giving them the work of three workers, trying to say they’re not able for the work anymore, trying to make them resign and putting their safety at risk.

“Also, the teeth of the saw should be changed every day, but sometimes they’re only changed every 10 days. In Brazil, we had a safety briefing every morning – guidance on what the working day is going to be like and what health and safety will be required.

“But nothing like that exists here.”

In the report, workers said that injuries occurred due to faulty tools or machinery, none or limited training on health and safety or on how to use equipment properly, a lack of protective measures or equipment as well as exposure to toxic chemicals and high noise levels.

Bullying

Almost half (43%) said that they felt verbally bullied in the workplace, 11% felt physically bullied and 35% felt psychologically bullied.

Just 37% reported a bullying issue, and of that, 96% said their employer did not take effective action.

In another case study, a worker said he is bullied “all day long”.

“I’ve been working in meat for eight years. My whole family has worked in meat in my home country.

“Before I started this job, I became undocumented and because of this I feel like I cannot speak out at work or change my situation.

“Undocumented workers face more discrimination - we’re made to stay late, do extra cleaning, and lift heavier weights.

“We’re often told 'if you find it hard, pack your things and go home'. I’m only paid €9 an hour.

“The conditions have sent me into a depression, my manager bullies me all day long – yelling horrible things at me all day long. Only my faith and family have kept me going”

Covid-19

A number of meat plants were found to have clusters of Covid-19 during the pandemic.

52 outbreaks have been associated with meat plants and some workers said there has been a backslide in Covid-health and safety measures.

Workers told the MRCI that “they are being told to physically distance on the factory floor in areas where it is not possible to do so, especially when production targets remain so high”.

One worker said in the report that she was “off for 15 days” after getting the virus.

She said “half of the people working [at a meat plant] got sick” but the production “never stopped”.

She said people had to work “twice as hard to maintain the output levels”.

The worker added: “The company did not give us sick pay.

“There are 6 workers living in my house. Two of us got Covid and the others had to quarantine too.

“We didn’t want to give it to them so we had a rota with slotted times to use the kitchen and bathroom. It was a really hard time for us all.

“I only got my social welfare payment after 40 days, so I was at home not being paid and worrying about my rent.

“I don’t feel valued at all. Everyone is treated the same way – just as bad. They really don't care about us.”

Other findings in the survey include:

  • 62% of workers said they had not received enough training when they started their jobs.
  • 90% of workers are not covered by occupational sick pay schemes in the event of injury or illness.
  • 28% of the workers on the lowest salaries (€12.00 and below) have been working for between four to 15 year Top reasons for discrimination were related to nationality and race/ethnicity.
  • 87% of workers said that they had not had the opportunity to progress or be promoted since starting in their workplace.
  • Not a single worker surveyed said they felt valued.

"This research shows that workers feel under pressure to work at unreasonable and unsafe speeds on the production line," said Bríd McKeown, Workplace Rights Coordinator with the MRCI. 

"Despite staff shortages during holidays or Covid-related absences, production levels are back on par with 2018 and exceed 2019 levels."

She added: "Not a single worker surveyed said they felt valued at work. 

"Despite years of experience in the sector, meat workers face a culture of oppression in their workplace, low wages and lack of progression, and poor health and safety standards.

"We need the government to take this seriously and to act in the interests of workers not just big business. We need a new approach to the meat sector, one that values transparency and accountability. 

"We are calling on the Government to establish a Joint Sub-Committee of Business and Agriculture to oversee this, and for an overhaul of the work permit system so that workers can change jobs and stand up to exploitation without fear of becoming undocumented."

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) has, however, refuted the claims made by the MRCI in the report.

MII, who represent primary meat processor companies, said: “Were such practices to exist we would expect and encourage them to be reported to the proper authorities.

“The primary meat processing sector is highly regulated and subject to the full rigors of employment law, with meat plants regularly inspected by officials from the Workplace Relations Commission and Health and Safety Authority (HSA) who have legislative powers to intervene.

“The findings of multiple inspections by the HSA across the industry in recent times do not support the allegations being made by MCRI.

“All employees in the sector, regardless of nationality, are protected by the same Irish employment and health and safety legislation.”

More in this section