Agriculture committee recommended to examine conditions in meat plants

Covid-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants along with issues surrounding working conditions may be further examined by Oireachtas committees.

In its final report, the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response has referred a number of matters related to meat plants to both the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine and the Joint Committee on Health.

It has been recommended that the agriculture committee looks at:
  • The need to ensure that Covid-19 compliance officers are be appointed in all meat plants;
  • The need to consider and determine the role of departmental inspectors with regard to Covid-19 in meat plants;
  • The need to review reports of workers returning to work within meat plants while awaiting test results;
  • The need to review the NPHET commissioned report, ‘Investigation into a Series of Outbreaks of COVID-19 in Meat Processing Plants in Ireland’.

The health committee has been recommended to look at routine testing for Covid-19 in meat processing plants taking place with results returned within 24 hours to the individual workers.

The Covid-19 response committee also said it “welcomes the investigation by the Data Protection Commissioner of potential breaches of personal data belonging to meat plant workers and in relation to test results”.

Working conditions in the sector

The Covid-19 committee said it is particularly concerned about workers, with 70% being migrant workers from outside Ireland, being “attached to specific employers and it is very difficult and costly for them to move”, “hot-bedding”, along with reluctance to “raise concerns due to fear of losing their jobs and how this would impact their immigration status”.

The committee said it heard that conditions in meat plants were “unrivalled vectors” for the transmission of Covid-19, and the key issue raised was the “lack of sick pay schemes in plants and the potential for workers to continue to attend work with symptoms as a result”.

The committee also heard that there was an “inconsistent approach to the pandemic across the industry with approximately 50 separate plants owned by different groups and not all of them members of MII [Meat Industry Ireland]”.

It was told that despite complaints, “no inspections of meat plants were carried out by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) between March and May although work in meat plants is of high-intensity and labour-intensive”.

The HSA also confirmed that as part of a national arrangement overseen by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, inspectors from the Department of Agriculture were “undertaking inspections on behalf of the authority”.

The committee has compiled this evidence from its meetings during the pandemic, where it heard from TDs, trade union SIPTU, MII, the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) among others.