‘There were no signals that there was any cause for concern’ in meat factories

According to the group representing O’Brien Fine Foods and Carroll Cuisine, “there were no signals that there was any cause for concern” in these factories.

Director of the Prepared Consumer Foods group of Food Drink Ireland Linda Stuart-Trainor said that there has been “a lot of unfair generalisation” made about the meat sector recently.

Speaking on Newstalk, she said now that society is opening up more, people “were told to expect that there would be clusters from time to time”.

While the virus might be identified in factories, it is certainly not created there.

“We need to remember that despite all our nation’s efforts, Covid-19 is still out there in the community.

“It’s all part of the movement of people from the community into factories and back out again. We need to figure out a way to manage this because we have to keep essential businesses operating.”

‘There were no signals that there was any cause for concern’

Stuart-Trainor defended production operations going ahead throughout the pandemic, as factories “were designated as essential businesses right from the beginning”.

“One of the really notable features of the outbreaks that we’ve seen in the sector is the really high level of asymptomatic cases,” she continued.

There were no signals either to the individuals or to the companies that there was any cause for concern. That was even in the case of daily or more frequent temperature checking.

When asked about workers availing of sick pay schemes, the representative said “there has been a lot of unfair generalisation in this whole area”.

“In the companies I represent, there’s a huge variety of roles in food processing. The general operatives that are conducting some of the production work are the lower-paid workers in these companies,” Stuart-Trainor said.

“But – we must remember – we have a very high minimum wage in this country.

“I think it’s worth noting that the two companies in this sector that are currently closed [O’Brien Fine Foods and Carroll Cuisine] have committed to fully paying staff during the shutdown period.”

Individuals need to show ‘personal responsibility’

Adding that over 90% of workers in these companies are from the EU and Irish is the most common nationality, she said that “employers have taken additional measures to communicate in multiple languages with employees to make sure that the messages were well understood”.

She said: “The core message was [that] if you feel unwell in any way, stay away from the workplace.

“Either there are arrangements in place from the company [for sick pay] or, because of the unique pandemic situation, there are also enhanced social welfare entitlements,” Stuart-Trainor said. 

Responding to concerns over whether employers’ responsibility for workers’ safety needs to go beyond the factory gate, she said responsibility needs to be “collaborative”, with individuals needing to show “personal responsibility”.

“The reality is [that] unless the employer is providing the accommodation or transport [for factory workers], they have very little control.”