We thank the committee for the invitation and look forward to having a good discussion with members. Normally, we would have a worker with us to share her experience and give testimony. However, such is the fear of workers of being in a public place in a way that might jeopardise their livelihood and employment that we did not ask any to come here with us. This group of people have been asked, during a global pandemic, to get vital food to our homes. They deserve our respect. Government and employers should prioritise their safety.
We know the meat sector is a multibillion euro export sector. We believe there was a lack of political will to look at closure of these factories because it is such a high-value industry.
In preparation for the committee we found a real dearth of data relating to workers in this sector. We asked the Central Statistics Office in 2016 for a special tabulation of data. This allowed us to see that there were 12,413 workers in this sector. Since 2017, a total of 3,042 work permits have been issued. This means there are 15,338 workers in the sector. Migrant workers accounts for 58% of the sector, despite what has been told to the House previously. Some 59% of these are EU workers, 41% are non-EU workers and 19% of those are on employment permits.
The main nationalities are Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Latvian, Moldovan, Slovakian, Brazilian, South African, Botswanan and Filipino. They come from quite a range of countries. EU and non-EU workers are over-represented on the factory floors.
It is important to understand the differing contexts for EU and non-EU Workers. EU workers have freedom of movement under EU law and full access to the labour market, while people from outside of the EU require permits to work. Workers are essentially tied to their employers and it is difficult to change employment. Workers fear losing their immigration status, which is also tied to one's work permit. We have been working with people in the work permit system for nearly 20 years and they greatly fear losing their immigration status. It is very difficult for people to assert their rights, despite what has probably previously been said in this Chamber. We have long called for sectoral work permits to be implemented in a number of industries to allow people better freedom of movement.
With regard to working conditions, the meat sector is difficult and dangerous. Repetitive strain and workplace accidents are commonplace. In one recent prosecution in Cavan, carried out by the Health and Safety Authority, a worker was awarded just €2,000 for the loss of an eye. That is shocking.
Public data on workers’ experience in this sector are virtually non-existent. In preparation for this hearing, over the last ten days we asked 68 workers from various meat factories across the country to provide some details of their working experience and work history and of what happened to them during the Covid pandemic. This also highlights the lack of research done in this area. My colleague, Ms McKeown, will now take the committee through this information.