How are meat plant staff faring with social distancing?

Social distancing has become a part of working life for everybody in recent weeks. However, in some work environments, this may be easier said than done.

At the end of last month, staff at two of Northern Ireland’s biggest agri-food processing sites staged a walk-out over fears their health was being put at risk to Covid-19. The staff claimed that health and safety provisions, particularly around social distancing, were not adequate.

Also Read: Staff at ABP and Moy Park sites ‘hold walkout’ over Covid-19 concerns

But how are are meat plant staff faring on this side of the border.

This week, AgriLand spoke to Greg Ennis of SIPTU, who is responsible for overseeing the Agriculture, Ingredients, Food and Drink Sector of the trade union.

SIPTU represents various types of meat plants right around the country, and there have been concerns raised similar to the concerns raised in the North, regarding physical distancing in particular.

Ennis explained that some plants had brought in some measures to mitigate the spread of the virus (including temperature testing, where suppliers, workers, management and others have their temperatures tested before being allowed on-site).

Many plants have put provisions in place to make social distancing possible. However, some concerns remain.

One sticking point is, according to Ennis, the discrepancy between the advice of the Health Service Executive (HSE), which recommends social distancing of two meters, and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which recommends a distance of one meter.

A lot of them are complying with the one meter scenario…that has been an issue, there is no doubt.

“Most of our workers continue to work, and obviously they’re seen as performing an essential service in the food-supply chain,” Ennis pointed out.

Some of the other measures that various plants have brought in include staggered shifts – so that staff start work, end work and have a break at different times – and limiting the amount of staff who can be in the canteen area at any one time.

Ennis noted that this issue is not as prominent in the dairy production sector.

The big issue is in the beef industry, where you have production lines, boning lines and so on, and making sure people are safe in that working environments. That is the bigger issue.

“Obviously, there are concerns where workers are sharing work environments, but not so much [in the dairy sector],” he explained.

However, he did add: “The biggest concern would be if a number of people got the virus and got sick and were not able to show up for work, and you couldn’t produce the product.”

Lay-offs / part-time work

Among the workers that SIPTU represents in the agriculture, ingredients, food and drinks sector, a total of 683 people have been laid off or are on part-time work.

The majority of these are in drinks companies and companies involved in the transport of beverages around the country.

Some 7,000 of SIPTU’s members in its Manufacturing Division (of which Ennis is the divisional organiser) have been laid off.

This division comprises of three sectors: Agriculture, Ingredients, Food and Drink; Electronics, Engineering and Industrial Production; and Pharmaceuticals; Chemicals and Medical Devices.

In some companies, including dairy companies, some staff are taking additional annual leave and/or reduced working time.

However, Ennis highlighted that Covid-19 has had a “negligible” effect on employment in the food producing sector, due to food and drink production being designated as essential work.