Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said it believes that approximately 20% of the workforce is covered by sick pay.

Trade union SIPTU has presented a contrasting statistic: that just 10% of the workforce is covered by sick pay which, according to manufacturing division organiser Greg Ennis, “forces vulnerable workers to go to work, even if they are feeling unwell with possible Covid-19 symptoms”.

The disparity between these numbers exists because MII’s statistic of 20% is based on a “survey” of only MII members, according to the representatives. SIPTU’s statistic of 10% is based on the meat processing industry across the board in Ireland.

Matters of urgency were discussed at the meeting of the Special Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 Response held yesterday, Thursday, August 14, involved a number of employment matters: meat plant workers’ access to sick pay; Pay Related Social Insurance (PRSI) contributions; workers being provided by agencies; and workers living in inappropriate accommodation as a result of financial constraints.

Cormac Healy, senior director of MII, defended the meat industry, saying that “direct employment of workers by the company is what happens and is the mainstay of this industry”.

“We believe the situation, as far as MII members are concerned, is that less than 2% of the workforce is provided by agencies. What is being claimed is not the case and it is important to clarify that.”

MII also said that 20% of the workforce are on work permits; in contrast to 80%, as stated by members of the committee.

‘Not a requirement to provide accommodation to those workers’

The issue of ‘hot-bedding’ was addressed by the committee – to which Healy said it “should not be tolerated”.

In general, there is not a requirement to provide accommodation to those workers. It is not something that has been custom and practice.

“There is a requirement that the employer would work with a permit holder to source accommodation. The workers are not committed to using that, but many of them will use it in the first instance.

“I believe that accommodation is also checked to verify that piece of the permit legislation is being done and that the employer is helping them in sourcing accommodation.

“I agree that the hot-bedding should not be tolerated. Despite the perception that is out there, the industry is not involved in mass provision of accommodation. It has to do specific things for the work permit colleagues who come in, but beyond that, I do not think it is or has been a feature of the terms of employment.”

‘I do not accept what has been said’

SIPTU added that the meat processing industry has “unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19”.

“These vectors include: relatively low wages causing workers to car pool; share accommodation and in many cases share rooms within that accommodation.”

Healy said he does “not accept what has been said; we continue to work on the situation”.

He added: “Covid-19 does not start in the meat plant; it comes into it”.