Meat plants ‘should be forced to close in event of new Covid-19 clusters’

The “lack of commitment” from the meat processing industry to immediately close individual plants in the event of further outbreaks of Covid-19 has been criticised by the Social Democrats.

Commenting on the matter yesterday evening, Thursday, August 13, following a sitting of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19, Social Democrats spokesperson for agriculture Holly Cairns said:

“At [yesterday’s] special Covid-19 committee hearing, I asked representatives of the meat industry to clearly state if individual plants would be closed if new clusters emerged.

“However, it is clear from the responses I received that the sector will simply rely on the new testing regime to achieve the dual objectives of workers’ safety and continuity of production.

The health and well-being of employees and preventing the spread of Covid-19 in our communities must be the main priorities. However, in the event of a plant having to close due to a cluster, it is vital that financial supports are put in place for its workers and the farmers supplying it.

Noting that the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has previously said he believes that factories with clusters should close, deputy Cairns highlighted that the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that the power exists under public health legislation for the Health Service Executive (HSE) “to order businesses to close – and yet this has not happened”.

“The government has shut down entire counties and hundreds of businesses, but somehow lacks the will to close plants with confirmed clusters,” the Cork TD added.

Continuing, she said that the meat industry is worth billions “but the money set aside to carry out inspections is a pittance”.

“Trade union officials [yesterday] supported my call for a task-force to look into wider problems within the meat processing sector, which range from health and safety issues to low pay and precarious employment.

Of 15,338 meat plant workers, 8,896 are migrants. The non-EU workers are bound to their employers by their work permits. 90% of workers get no sick pay, so are more likely to turn up for work even when they have symptoms of Covid-19.

“The Beef Tribunal in the 1990s showed that this sector has had very considerable political clout and that the government has turned a blind eye to the industry’s failings in the past,” deputy Cairns said.

“These scandals should be consigned to history and we must not allow a situation to develop where powerful interests in the meat industry are afforded special treatment.

“It is completely unreasonable to ask other businesses where there have been no outbreaks to close while allowing the main source of these clusters to remain open.

Further counties could be locked down if lessons are not learnt from the current outbreaks.

“A proactive rather than reactive approach by the state is essential,” deputy Cairns concluded.