‘Appalling that workers could be brought to Ireland to be exploited’ – McNamara

Independent TD Michael McNamara has said that it is “very disappointing, but not entirely surprising” to hear accounts of meat factory workers’ experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to Brian O’Connell for RTÉ Radio 1, three workers, who were not identified and spoke through a translator, revealed what it has apparently been like in their workplaces during the pandemic.

Deputy McNamara is chair of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, of which members have questioned Meat Industry Ireland (MII), trade union SIPTU and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) among others during the recent committee meetings.

After hearing the accounts of workers from meat plants in Ireland, deputy McNamara told RTÉ Radio 1 that “it was very disappointing, but not entirely surprising”.

“The whole Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare a number of structural weaknesses in Ireland: under-investment in our health system; overcrowded classrooms; and also the special position that meat plants appear to enjoy in the Irish state,” the deputy said.

“They [meat plants] do seem to operate in a very special place in Ireland and I don’t know why.”

‘Appalling that any workers be exploited’

Deputy McNamara said that it is “appalling that any workers could be brought to Ireland to be exploited, if that is what’s happening – and that’s certainly what it sounds like”.

“Obviously, the permit system – as it operates – results in workers being almost in bonded labour,” he continued.

They [workers] feel they can’t leave their employment to move on to something else.

“The testimony we have heard from workers [doesn’t] sound like the testimony of people who were confident that their workplace is in any way a safe place to work and it wasn’t the testimony of workers working in an environment which is paying due regard to the dangers of Covid.

“Three whole counties were locked down because of clusters in meat plants, one of them still locked down.

“It begs a lot of questions on how exactly the meat plants are treated in such a special manner by state authorities.”

‘While production is still going, you can never be safe’

A meat plant worker has said that while production continues in their workplace, they “can never be safe”.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio 1 today (Monday, August 31), a meat plant worker said that “while production is still going, you can never be safe”.

Describing what it has been like in the plant, the worker said:

“In reality, when someone is sick or on holidays, the company’s goal of production doesn’t change.

“They expect the production to stay the same even though there are less workers, so we end up doing the work for workers that are gone.

“The company will never stop production and they will never send us home and pay us at the same time.

We have to take care of ourselves because they are not going to take care of us.

With no guarantee of sick pay, the worker said that “if we [workers] get Covid, we don’t know what would happen”.