‘If the worker self-isolated, there would not be a job for them in 2 weeks’ – SIPTU

Trade union SIPTU has claimed it is aware of a meat factory worker that was told if they “self-isolated there would not be a job for them in two weeks” despite it being a requirement upon arriving to Ireland from abroad at the time.

SIPTU manufacturing division organiser Greg Ennis told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response last week of “a worker’s experience at the height of the crisis in late May”.

“That person went home to eastern Europe, as they did annually, to visit their family and then came back [to Ireland] with the intention of self-isolating,” Ennis explained.

The employer said that if the worker self-isolated, there would be no job for them in two weeks.

Ennis added that workers are fearful of speaking up about events such as this, as “many workers are from agencies and feel very vulnerable”.

“Anecdotally, some workers who tested positive for Covid-19 in the past and were brought to the field hospital in Citywest [Hotel] did not give contact tracing information; they did not understand what they were being asked or were afraid of putting another worker out of the workplace.”

‘Chronic issue’ with language barriers

Nora Labo of the Independent Workers Union said that language barriers make employment more difficult for some workers and that there is a “chronic issue whereby workers of different nationalities are brought to work in factories without any induction in their own language”.

“They work in segregated teams based on nationality so they have no opportunity to learn English,” Labo claimed.

“In many meat plants, for instance, we know workers employed through agencies received a text message or email from their agency – very brief and often only in English – about the PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] they were going to receive.

Often, they came with no instructions in their own language as to whether the face mask was reusable, single-use…or essential information like this.

“Sometimes, workers called me with a photo of the mask and asked me to tell them how to use it, could it be re-used or how long it was good for…because no such instructions had been given by the employing agencies.”

Labo added that “being foreign and with a limited command of English is a real disadvantage in independently securing accommodation”.

“Many workers we know are being housed by their employment agencies which, seeking to maximise profit from the accommodation they provide to their employees, crowd as many people as possible into each house they let,” she said.

“This reckless behaviour on the agencies’ part also led to people being moved from one shared house to another during the height of the pandemic in an effort to keep each house full so as not to lose income,” Labo alleged.