“Principles of fairness and equity seem to be lacking” in the meat industry, according to TD Holly Cairns.

Addressing the representatives of Meat Industry Ireland (MII) at the meeting of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response in Leinster House last week, Friday, July 10, the Social Democrats’ spokesperson on agriculture said recent issues in the Irish meat industry are “intrinsically linked”.

“Before the pandemic, the large meat processing plants were most recently associated with protests by farmers. So, for me and many others, these two things are intrinsically linked,” she said.

“It is obvious there are clear parallels to be drawn here.

It speaks to how industrious-scale meat processing treats people, workers and small suppliers.

“Farmers receive prices so low they are forced to protest again and again to save their family farms.

“Workers, especially the more vulnerable ones, are left open to infection.”

Deputy Cairns, who is a beef farmer herself, added that the “principles of fairness and equity seem to be lacking” within the industry.

“It isn’t too much to expect that farmers get a fair price and that workers have safe working conditions,” she said.

Responding to Deputy Cairns’ concerns, chairman of MII Philip Carroll said he was “surprised” by the issues raised.

I am surprised you are conflating issues that have emerged in the past, with a much more serious situation of the presence of Covid in our environment, in our communities and, unfortunately, also in meat plants.

“We are in a process through the Market Taskforce of dealing with a range of issues identified as needing attention, including levels of transparency,” he stated.

‘Plenty of context; short in accepting responsibility’

Deputy Cairns said she would also be seeking a taskforce to look into the “terms and conditions for workers in this sector and to examine state funding”.

“It’s large-scale meat processors that are the problem here; it’s not migrant workers, it’s not farmers and it’s not small abattoirs – they don’t seem to be having the same problems,” she continued.

“It seems the industrialisation of the sector and the practices have increased the vulnerabilities of a lot of stakeholders.

“While your opening statement [to the committee] provides plenty of context, it is short in accepting any responsibility.

I’ll be seeking a taskforce to look into the terms and conditions for workers in this sector and to examine state funding – I’m wondering if you will support this?

Responding to Cairns’ question, Carroll said that he does not “see the merit of that”.

“We do not have large, industrial-scale plants,” he stated.

Continuing, he said: “We have had a taskforce, the national outbreak control team, and we have engaged thoroughly, not directly, but at every single factory site where we had significant clusters, management has been deep in discussion and cooperation with the control team.

“As far as a taskforce is concerned, I don’t see the merit of that.”