Trade union SIPTU has thrown down the gauntlet to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Covid-19 this morning, Thursday, August 13, by asking the question: “Do we cherish the quality of our food more than the safety of our people?”

Speaking to the committee this morning, which is taking place in the Seanad, Greg Ennis, manufacturing division organiser with SIPTU, said:

“It is now beyond doubt that the meat processing industry contains unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19, which had previously caused 1,115 meat plant workers to be infected in 20 clusters, as of early July.

These vectors include: close proximity working; bottlenecks in canteens/toilets; noise pollution causing workers to shout to communicate, which create droplets with these droplets being circulated through the industrial air cooling systems; relatively low wages causing workers to car pool, share accommodation and in many cases share rooms within that accommodation.

“It is notable that circa 90% of workers within the industry do not have sick pay, forcing vulnerable workers to go to work, even if they are feeling unwell with possible Covid symptoms.”

The SIPTU official said, in mid-June, the trade union had predicted that if a second wave of Covid-19 was to arise, it would manifest itself through the meat processing industry.

“This opinion was predicated on the experiences of other countries such as the US and Canada and the example in Germany, wherein two months after Germany announced looser Covid-19 controls, an outbreak in a meat processing plant triggered a return to lockdown in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

“This meat plant was closed after 1,500 workers tested positive for Covid-19,” he added.

In the Republic of Ireland, we now have circa 1,450 meat plant workers with confirmed Covid cases – circa 10% of the workforce – with clusters of more than 100 cases in five separate meat plants, following the recent resurgence in the midlands.

Ennis queried why Ireland has not followed the example of other EU countries in setting up “national outbreak control teams with the voice of meat processing workers represented”.

He highlighted that workers would “have greater knowledge of the situation on the ground”, adding that workers and their families “are vulnerable and most at risk”.

“Why did the HSA [Health and Safety Authority] not commence inspections at meat plants until late in May and why do we still have very few, if any, unannounced inspections at meat plants?

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland [FSAI] carries out an excellent public duty through its unannounced inspections – do we cherish the quality of our food more than the safety of our people?

Ennis also highlighted the relatively low wages in meat processing, questioning how this reconciles with the “essential” nature of the industry and the labour-intensive and physically demanding role played by meat workers.

He pointed to the issue of shared accommodation among workers and the threat this poses in transmission of the virus, as well as the need to ban “both sub-contracting and bogus self-employment within the Irish meat processing industry, similar to that announced in Germany”.

Finally, the call for rapid turnaround times for Covid-19 testing of workers – within 24 hours – was reiterated by the SIPTU official.