Additional reporting by Rachel Martin
Workers at two of Northern Ireland’s biggest agri-food processing sites have walked today, Wednesday, March 25, over fears their health was being put at risk to Covid-19.
At least 150 workers are understood to have staged a walkout at Moy Park’s site at Seagoe in Portadown after workers accused the company of putting profits before safety.
A further 80 are also said to have walked out at ABP’s facility in Lurgan.
It came after proposals to secure health and safety protections put forward by Unite the Union were rejected by bosses.
Staff at the site have now returned to work, although McKeever said the disruption to production lasted as long as an hour.
It’s understood issues around staff distancing and the prevention of Covid-19 were first raised around a week ago. However, it came to a head today after a group of new workers from eastern Europe appeared not to be following the same hygiene practices as established workers.
“This follows the failure of the biggest employer in Northern Ireland to provide basic health and safety protections to its workforce,” McKeever said.
“Unite attempted to secure commitments to ensure a minimum 2m social distancing between workers and other measures to enable infection control in the face of the coronavirus threat, but our proposals were dismissed by management.
Workers are refusing to return to work in unsafe conditions. This is an entirely foreseeable outcome of both management greed and total inaction from Stormont.
“We need to see immediate movement from management to address the workers’ legitimate fears over coronavirus transmission. There cannot be any two-tier approach to health and safety in workplaces. Food production workers will not be treated as second-class,” McKeever said.
Workers took similar action at ABP Meats’ site in Lurgan.
Susan Fitzgerald, Unite regional co-ordinating officer, said around 80 people walked out of the factory.
“Approximately 80 employees at ABP Meats in Lurgan, who are deemed ‘essential’, refused work today over fears for their safety,” she said.
“Unite has been informed that the workers are demanding adequate social distancing of 2m be facilitated and enforced and other measures be adopted to keep workers as separated as possible and deep-cleans are conducted on work stations where workers have self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms.
What is happening here is entirely foreseeable. In the context of a pandemic, where workers are feeling unsafe at work, there needs to be clear government enforcement of Public Health Agency coronavirus guidelines to ensure their safety.
“In particular, there can be no institution of a two-tier health and safety regime of protective measures for workers in the food sector.
“Government inaction is going to cost lives. There must be a full lock-down of non-essential companies and where workers are deemed essential every possible measure should be taken and enforced to protect them – or else they shouldn’t be there,” Fitzgerald said.
AgriLand has contacted both firms for response. Stay tuned for more on this story.
A response received from Moy Park read: “The health and well-being of our team is our most important consideration and we have put new, robust measures in place to keep them safe.
“We have thoroughly reviewed our sites and continue to take on board feedback from our team members. We had already identified seven areas to enhance social distancing.
“These measures include staggering breaks, re-spacing workstations and communal areas, as well as installing screens on appropriate production lines.
We also continue to make provisions for those who can work from home to do so using remote technology as well as increased cleaning and the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We are continually reviewing the situation and taking additional steps where necessary.
“Our teams are playing a vital role in keeping food production moving and feeding the nation. We are committed to ensuring they are safe and well to keep providing these essential food products.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for ABP said:
“The safety and well-being of colleagues is paramount and the company has introduced a variety of additional measures at all sites in recent weeks in response to Covid-19.
These measures include protocols around essential visitors, temperature checking, additional sanitising stations, staggered breaks, additional canteen spaces and many other robust protocols that are in place in food manufacturing facilities.
“The company is taking guidance from the relevant public health authorities and is continually reviewing the situation and taking additional steps where necessary.”