Congregated Settings: Meat Plants

Ms Edel McGinley

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.

Ms Bríd McKeown

Over the past ten days, we spoke to a range of workers from seven or eight counties across Ireland. The majority were male with 29% being female. More than 60% of these workers said they were on €11.50 or less per hour, with four people saying they were on less than €10.10, two of whom are EU nationals. Some 15% of those interviewed said that they do not have a contract and a further 9% said they were not sure whether they have a contract. Some 13% said that their contracts do not reflect their current terms and conditions. Almost a quarter of workers said that they are not paid overtime for working extra hours. Shockingly, 90% of respondents said that their employers do not provide a sick pay scheme, which is crucial to the Covid response.

With regard to health and safety, almost 60% of workers said that they have been injured in the workplace. The majority of injuries were regular lacerations, bruises, repetitive strain from years in the same role and back pain. They claim these injuries are caused by lack of protective measures or equipment, no training or limited training on health and safety and faulty tools or machinery, with almost a fifth of workers citing injury as an expected occupational hazard. Some 23% of these injuries went unreported and more than 60% of workers said they did not even know who the health and safety officer in their workplace was.

We also asked workers if they felt valued in the workplace and 85% of our respondents said they do not. Some 70% said they felt they had been bullied in some way and, of those who felt they have been bullied, a fifth felt too afraid to raise their concerns. Three fifths of the workers we spoke to felt they have been discriminated against, mainly on the grounds of nationality or race.

To put all of this in the context of the Covid response, according to workers, there is an extremely mixed picture as to when protections were put in place. This ranged from an immediate response when lockdown occurred right up to five weeks or more before measures were put in place in the workplace. Some 43% of respondents said that, even where these measures were in place, they felt their employers were not enforcing them sufficiently. In those workplaces where there were clusters, just 30% of workers felt their employers took effective action to keep them safe, with 67% claiming their employer had not done enough to prioritise their safety. Some 40% of workers we interviewed still do not feel safe in their working environment.

With regard to housing, there are very limited data available. Our data, however, showed that 70% of the workers we interviewed do not live with co-workers but in a range of rented and family-owned accommodation.

Of the 28% of workers who live with co-workers, they live with three or fewer co-workers. Just three of the people we interviewed said they shared a room with a co-worker.

Regarding the response from employers, MRCI began to receive complaints on 26 March. Workers were worried, frightened and angry about the conditions they were being forced to work in and could foresee that, without appropriate health and safety measures, their families and health would be at risk. MRCI supported workers in raising their concerns with their employers. As we continued to receive ongoing complaints into May, however, it became clear that many factories were extremely slow to put adequate health and safety measures in place.

The meat sector is highly regulated in terms of meat production and food safety, but the same attitude and approach is not afforded the working conditions of the industry's staff. It seems that the State has allowed the industry to regulate itself, which we deem a questionable approach, given the history that we have outlined to the committee and the lack of value assigned to workers. To date, only one factory has closed to deal with the outbreak.

I thank Ms McKeown.

Ms Edel McGinley

I would like to highlight two further concerns regarding the HSA and the HSE in terms of contact tracing and the gross violation of people's confidentiality when their data were shared with employers first instead of with the workers themselves after testing positive for Covid-19. It was a serious breach of people's rights. We were concerned to hear revelations made by one director of public health that showed a level of institutional racism and discrimination that led to this serious breach. Essentially, it would have taken too long to talk to workers through an interpreter and tell them that they had Covid-19. State agencies have a public sector duty to provide equal access to services. As such, we are gravely concerned about this approach taken by the HSE.

We are also deeply concerned about the approach taken by the HSA. It received a number of complaints over the month of April, yet no inspections were carried out until the week of 19 May. Indeed, no sector-specific guidelines were put in place until 15 May even though this sector had been deemed essential from the outset. Surely a risk assessment should have been carried out and some guidelines should have been put in place. It is a sector where people work shoulder to shoulder and it is high intensity and labour intensive.

We question the approach that was taken by the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Health and Business, Enterprise and Innovation. A part of the problem is that a number of Departments are involved. It is an interdepartmental issue but seems to be falling between a few stools.

If there are more outbreaks, we will call for the closure of plants, which has only happened in one case. Equally, we would like a task force to be set up to examine terms and conditions for workers in the sector, where State funding to the sector goes, increasing pay for workers and, at a minimum, giving them bonuses for providing essential work during this period.

We would like labour inspectors and HSA inspectors to carry out unannounced inspections. One of the main problems is that inspections are announced. Nothing is found, people can scarper across the floor and workers are told to make themselves scarce. They are then left in the dark as to the outcomes of those inspections.

I thank the committee, and we welcome members' questions.

I thank Ms McGinley. The first speaker is from Fine Gael. Is Deputy Colm Burke taking five minutes or ten?

I will take ten, although I might not use all of them.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. I will deal with one or two of the issues they raised. Regarding the disclosure to employers about workers testing positive, is there any evidence that the HSE was experiencing difficulty, in that, if it told an employee that he or she had tested positive, the employee was still going to work?

Has the HSE given an explanation as to why it went directly to the employers?

Ms Edel McGinley

In terms of disclosures to employers, as I outlined, it was very much a case of trying to cut corners in some respects if employees were still going into work. I do not have data on that.

Has the centre looked for an explanation from the HSE as to why it went directly to the employers?

Ms Edel McGinley

No, we have not.

So there is not an explanation as to why the information was disclosed to employers first rather than to the employees.

Ms Edel McGinley

No, I do not have that information.

Does Ms McGinley accept that if someone was identified as being positive and did not take advice, that there was a duty of care and that employers should have been notified?

Ms Edel McGinley

I do not think we have a problem with employers being notified, the problem is that the employee was not notified first. It is their data, their information and their health. The problem is not that the employer was actually informed, it is that the worker was not informed first and that step was skipped.

Did Ms McGinley correspond with the HSE on this matter?

Ms Edel McGinley

No, we did not correspond with the HSE on this matter.

Would it not be wise to do so? Perhaps the committee might correspond with the HSE on this matter because I do not think we were given an explanation as to why the employers were notified first and it is an important issue.

That is a reasonable suggestion. I think some explanations were given in the Chamber but not in this committee.

Ms Edel McGinley


But I do not think a full explanation was given.

I accept Deputy Burke's suggestion. It is a very good one.

The responses to my questions on the matter were not sufficient.

We got a submission from Meat Industry Ireland saying that it was dealing with its members from 12 March on in approximately 50 plants across the country. It said that it was putting measures in place long before the HSE contacted it. Have the witnesses seen any evidence that measures of any description were put in place from 12 March on?

Ms Edel McGinley

Ms McKeon might take that question.

Ms Bríd McKeown

We have seen evidence in some workplaces that employers were very quick to put Covid measures in place. Around a quarter of the respondents to us in the past ten days said their workplace had put in measures during the first week of lockdown. What we have seen from this evidence and also from wider anecdotal evidence beyond this data pool is that there was a very inconsistent approach. Some employers put in place measures in the first week of lockdown and some put in measures six weeks later, unnecessarily exposing workers to Covid.

I think there are approximately 50 plants around the country dealing with meat processing and they are owned by different groups. Was there a clear difference in approach by the groups or did the approach depend on who was managing the factories?

Ms Bríd McKeown

I do not think we have sufficient data to put it down to a specific company, area or type of factory, but it is my understanding that it was easier to put measures in place in some factories than others due to the age of the factory and the layout.

Is there not a clear differentiation between various groups? For example, a group that owns six factories could adopt the same approach across the six factories but in the case of another group it might depend on who was managing the factory as opposed to the company that owned the factories.

Ms Bríd McKeown

I would say it was a mixture of those.

Ms Edel McGinley

I think there was a very individualised approach to how the measures were put in place. We only saw one factory closed down in all that time when an outbreak occurred. It was very welcome that the factory took that approach to protect its workers. The overall picture is very mixed. Unfortunately, we cannot say there was a blanket approach or that everybody did one thing or another.

I wish to focus on an issue the witnesses raised in their report. I accept that reference was not made to it this morning but it is an important issue. It is that some people who work in meat factories are employed by agencies, as opposed to the factories themselves. How wide a problem is that and what new problems is that creating for the workers?

Ms Bríd McKeown

I would say the majority of workers are employed directly by their employer. There is an emerging issue around agency workers, mainly worked on by the Independent Workers Union in Cork. It is seeing this issue across different sectors, not just meat. Some problems with agency workers arise from the fact that their rights are often controlled by the agency. They live in agency-provided accommodation and during Covid they were threatened with eviction if they raised issues around health and safety concerns or general working conditions.

Is there one particular area of the country where this is an issue or is it across the entire country?

Ms Bríd McKeown

I do not know. The only reports we have heard have been from the south west.

Ms Edel McGinley

We do not think it is a widespread issue but it is an issue and it is something that needs to be addressed. It is something this committee could look at.

On the rights of people employed by an agency as opposed to by the factory itself, their rights are not the same. Can we identify what needs to be done in this area to make sure people have the same rights, whether they are employed by an agency or by the owner of the factory directly?

Ms Edel McGinley

Good practice with regard to workers would be direct employment. What is happening is something that should not be allowed in the sector because it allows for a further denigration of people's rights and entitlements. It is a practice which needs to be stamped out and should not be tolerated in this sector. A simple message would be that this is not the way to employ workers in this industry.

The report that has come back from the employers is to effect that some 97% of workers have returned to work. Is that consistent with the witnesses' evidence on this issue? Have any follow-on problems arisen for people who were out because of Covid, such as loss of earnings or loss of holiday pay? Is there evidence of that occurring, from the witnesses' investigations?

Ms Edel McGinley

As we stated, 90% of workers are not covered by any sick pay scheme, so there was a lot of misunderstanding about qualifying for sick pay and, where there was an entitlement, how to claim it. That was difficult for people. The majority of people we work with are back in work and have been for a long time. Most people we work with have been working all the time. Part of the scandal of this is that workers have not been given any extra pay throughout this period. They have been working in a very difficult environment. We, as a country, expected them to step up and do essential work and their employers have not valued this in any way. That needs to be addressed.

The employers tell us they have now provided guidance in the languages workers speak. I think there are about ten different languages used by workers because they come from a number of different countries. Have the witnesses seen evidence that the proper translation has occurred in relation to guidance, health and safety and so on? Is all of that information in the language of the countries that workers come from?

Ms Edel McGinley

It is all well and good to provide health and safety measures in the language people understand but there has to be training in it. There has to be consistent training, monitoring and communication with staff. Part of the problem has been a lack of communication between management and workers. That has been consistent in the past. As the committee heard, over 60% do not even know who the health and safety officer is in their place of work. There is a real problem in terms of communication, connection and consultation with workers to protect them and keep them safe. It is important that information is in people's languages and I do not have a figure for how often this is available, but that needs to be made real for people in the workplace. What does that look like? We do not have figures on that and it is important to understand how much training has been carried out and with whom? What people were involved in it?

A big piece of work has to be done. It needs investment. We are really talking about investment in workers here and this is what has been lacking previously and throughout the whole time.

I thank the witnesses.

I have one follow-up question. We received very helpful submissions from ICTU and from the Independent Workers Union on the issue of the varying reactions at various times in various meat plants. The Independent Workers Union stated: one meat plant, on the first day of lockdown, the doors to the women’s locker rooms and toilets were bolted open to the wall without prior notice. According to management, this was done so that the female employees wouldn’t touch the doors. However, these facilities open into the main hallway, and the women felt humiliated and dehumanised, being forced to change in full sight of all passers-by, all in the interest of 'health and safety'.

In your survey, did you come across anything like that?

Ms Bríd McKeown

The people who we work with experience day-to-day discrimination and bullying and when I read that in the Independent Workers Union report I was not surprised to read it. We did not come across any particular-----

You did not come across anybody who had encountered this particular practice or any practice like it?

Ms Bríd McKeown

Not that particular practice, no.

I thank Ms McKeown.

Deputy Devlin for Fianna Fáil has ten minutes.

I thank Ms McGinley and Ms McKeown for their attendance today as well as for their contributions and opening statements which were enlightening and are much appreciated.

This issue, as they are well aware, that came to public prominence at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In my own constituency of Dún Laoghaire we do not have meat processing plants. It does not directly affect my area but that is not a reason to be here or not to be here. I welcome the fact Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is here and this is a very good forum in which to air the issues they have highlighted. I would go so far as to say that this is not, unfortunately, isolated to meat processing or any type of industry for that matter.

Looking at this from the point of view of the work permits, which Ms McGinley touched on in her remarks, reform needs to happen because as she highlighted the employees are very much attached to the employer. That in itself brings issues. It is fine if the employer is a good employer but there is a huge problem with the not so good ones. That needs to be dealt with across the board.

Could Ms McGinley and Ms McKeown elaborate on sectoral work permits and how they envisage those, particularly for non-EU workers?

They also touched on the HSA inspections. Do they know how many were carried out during the height of the pandemic, bearing in mind that Ms McGinley gave a date of, I think, 15 May for guidelines being issued? On those guidelines, we are talking about people who feel isolated and cut off and almost beholden to the employer or the business they work for. Are the witnesses aware of those guidelines being issued in different languages? I am not aware of whether they were, and that is why I am asking.

Ms McGinley and Ms McKeown might answer those questions and I might then come back in with some others.

Ms Edel McGinley

On the work permits, we have been calling for sectoral work permits to allow for mobility for workers so if there are problems in their employment, be it exploitation or health and safety issues, they would have the freedom to move employer and not have to go through a whole process of reapplying for a work permit costing €1,000. It is quite a complex situation. Taking the agriculture industry as an example, which might include horticulture, such as mushroom and fruit picking, and meat processing, a sectoral work permit might allow a person to work throughout that sector. It would be the same with hospitality and with nursing homes, which I know the committee has examined in detail. This is about giving the employee the power to move should something be wrong. That is something we would be very happy to work on.

As regards HSA inspections, it is my understanding that inspections have now been carried out. There has been a suite of inspections, though I do not have the figure for them right now. However, when we talked to the workers, they told us they knew inspections was coming because there was a flurry of activity, marks were put on the floors and Covid signs were put up outside. This approach to announced inspections is a very flawed one, so we think that is problematic.

The Deputy asked about the guidelines from 15 May being issued in different languages. I have not seen them either. I do not know if workers were made aware that new guidelines were put in place. We told the people we were working with about them so I would say the answer to that is "No".

I commend the work that Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is doing because without it, many of these people would be voiceless and would feel vulnerable. It is important that Ms McGinley is able to voice their concerns. I have not visited a meat packing or processing plant but I would hope the yellow signage with which we are all now familiar, such as is right here beside me and everywhere one goes, would be multilingual and that there would be particular advice for these types of industries.

In its submission, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland stated that the CSO figures for 2016 show there were 12,413 employees in the sector, and around 42% of them were migrant workers. However, when work permits are added in on top of that, the figure is 15,338 and 58% of the sector are migrant workers. We are talking about quite a high volume of individuals who are potentially low-skilled and low-paid. What I said at the outset about the meat-packing industry being almost like a cluster for Covid may have been an incorrect portrayal but certainly the public perception was that were many issues in meat-packing plants.

My concern is now about the inspections being announced. No one involved in the hospitality industry ever gets advance notice of a health inspector coming in and rightly so because one needs to see warts and all in order to address concerns. I am very worried if advance notice of inspections is being given because it means we will not get to the root of the problem.

I was surprised at the accommodation figures because anecdotally, many people who are low-paid live together and that, therefore, would almost account for more of the cluster than the workplace.

I hope this is not the last time we get to engage. I hope we can achieve much of the reform the witnesses are seeking and I appreciate their time and comments.

Does Ms McGinley wish to come back in on any of the points Deputy Devlin made?

Ms Edel McGinley

I would just like to say that it is quite a high-skilled sector. To be a boner, cutter or butcher requires a lot of skill and the remuneration given for this skilled work is not appropriate.

Ms McGinley suggested that sectoral permits might improve the situation. However, farmers typically complain that there is very little variance in how they are treated between one meat plant and another. Is there a great variance in how workers are treated across meat plants, in Ms McGinley's experience?

Ms Edel McGinley

I might ask Ms McKeown to come in on that but I would say not. There is a very similar approach to workers across meat plants.

I appreciate the general advantage of sectoral employment permits in all areas, but how would it benefit individual workers in meat plants? Are they not being left with a choice of going from the frying pan into the fire if they leave one employer and go to another?

Ms Edel McGinley

They are not sitting ducks, so they can begin to negotiate better terms and conditions. If a lot of people are trying to move and negotiate better terms and conditions, by its very nature that raises the standards.

There needs to be a sectoral agreement for the area more generally to set terms and conditions of employment. ICTU has also been calling for that, and that is something we support.

I thank the witnesses for the work MRCI has been doing and for their presentations. We have received a report, which was compiled by Dr. Mannix and provided to NPHET, I understand, on 3 June. It states: "The Department are not currently aware of any plant where their staff have any significant concerns in relation to lack of compliance or inaction on the part of food business operators in respect of compliance with the NOCT guidelines". Am I correct that what the witnesses said contradicts this?

Ms Edel McGinley


How is it possible that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was not aware of concerns regarding specific plants? This was on 3 June, at a time the media profile of this issue was at its highest. How would it be possible that someone could compile an official report for NPHET and state the Department was not aware of concerns regarding individual plants?

Ms Edel McGinley

I wish I knew the answer to that. It is astonishing that that is in the report, given the existence of clusters at a very basic level and given all the work we are doing with workers and what we hear from workers. We can see from the statistics that five weeks later proper protections were not in place. My understanding is that representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are present in meat factories so one would assume some information should be passed on, although it has not been. Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for that.

The same report commends the meat industry on its adoption of procedures to protect workers, as does today's submission from Meat Industry Ireland, but the evidence of the witnesses and the submissions we have received from SIPTU and others report that some employers ignored completely the recommendations of the HSE. Who is lying to whom? How are we getting to a point where workers' representatives say one thing and official reports presented to NPHET say the exact opposite?

Ms Edel McGinley

I do not want to call anybody a liar but incomplete information may have been provided to the HSA for it to make an assessment of it. We can only rely on the figures that have come out on the outbreaks of Covid. These in and of themselves tell their own story. The right questions were probably not asked and perhaps the right inspections were not carried out. There was not communication between Departments, which we know is always a problem with regard to interdepartmental responsibility where there are different responsibilities for different aspects of the industry.

The report also states the decision of the HSE to convey test results to employers in meat plants was in line with legislation. It was a legal practice. To ask a broader question on the work of the MRCI, is Ms McGinley aware of any other industry where employers were informed of the test results regarding the health status of their employees before the workers themselves?

Ms Edel McGinley


Does Ms McGinley know offhand how many instances occurred? Can she get this information? As was mentioned earlier, we have asked the HSE but have not received a response on how many individual workers or individual plants were involved.

Ms Edel McGinley

I do not have detail on that.

It seems bizarre that we are relying on census information to try to get a sense of what proportion of the workforce in meat plants comes from migrant communities. Meat Industry Ireland refers to its migrant workforce as people from outside the EU. I am not sure whether any of them working here from Poland consider themselves to be domestic workers.

Perhaps Ms McKeown might have information on the following. Would it be fair to say, from her experience, that over 50% of general operators in meat plants are from migrant backgrounds?

Ms Bríd McKeown

People from an EU or non-EU background are over-represented on factory floors. Even if 58% of the workforce are from a migrant background and 42% from an Irish background, one is more likely to see a higher percentage of migrant workers on the factory floor in the lowest-paid positions.

In that regard, do the witnesses have a sense as to what proportion of management, from middle to upper level, is from a migrant background?

Ms Edel McGinley

CSO census data for 2016 collect occupations. It is very difficult to break the data down into occupations because there are so many and they are collected in very different ways. Unfortunately, the Labour Force Survey, which is one of our better surveys, does not collect these data at a low enough level to drill into that so we only really have top-line data. What we would really need to see is a special module conducted by the CSO to look at this industry in particular in order to try to drill down into it. The committee could request a special module to look at the sector in more depth, and the CSO could look at that, but that would be survey data. That is ultimately so important. We are relying on 2016 data. Neither our labour force survey nor the business survey - I cannot remember the name of it - collects these data, so that would be really good to have.

I propose that the working group consider that we would send that correspondence to the CSO as a recommendation that it conduct that type of-----

Certainly, we will consider that.

Do the witnesses have any evidence, even anecdotal, to suggest what proportion of the workers they have encountered are members of trade unions?

Ms Edel McGinley

I do not know the figure. Perhaps Ms McKeown would like to come in on that.

Ms Bríd McKeown

I am not sure I know the figure. There is a low density of union members across factories. SIPTU has members in a lot of different factories across Ireland but not necessarily enough to be recognised by the employer.

As for specific cases, are the witnesses aware of any instances in which workers went back to work having been tested but before the test results were conveyed to them?

Ms Bríd McKeown

No. We have anecdotal evidence from workers that they had been tested, that their employer had been told the results and that only when they went to ask their employer a few days later were they told the results. We do not have a huge amount of data on this but we have some anecdotal evidence that the feeling was that some employers were withholding positive results from workers who were not displaying symptoms in order to keep up production efforts. As I said, though, we do not have firm evidence of that.

I am sorry for asking the witnesses these questions. The reason we are asking them is that the information they have provided to us is more comprehensive than what we have been able to ascertain from official sources, so there are clearly gaps here. I know we have another session in the afternoon, but we should invite Dr. Mannix to a future hearing. We should also invite the union representatives to come along because they might have a perspective, as we have seen from the witnesses' written submissions, that would be incredibly useful to delve into further.

The final point I will make concerns the closure of factories and will, I hope, provide some relief to the witnesses as far as future outbreaks are concerned. Our now Taoiseach, Deputy Martin, only a few short weeks ago, on 14 May, called for factories to be closed in advance of a deep clean in the event of any outbreaks occurring in any of them.

I am sure that will be of assistance to us all as we move forward. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

I agree with the Deputy on the utility of a further meeting. It is, of course, in the hands of the Business Committee. The Deputy's party has a representative on that.

I will talk to him.

Very good. The next speaker is from the Labour Party, Deputy Duncan Smith.

Before I address the witnesses, I also would like to call for a session in the near future to which the trade unions would be invited on this specific issue.

On that point, we received a useful submission from ICTU. I have also read an interesting report from the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions that SIPTU contributed heavily to. I completely agree with the Deputy. He is on the Business Committee.

In their submission, they offered to come in.

What we are seeing here is that were it not for MRCI and the work of the unions, we would not have any information-----

-----about what is going on inside these meat plants in what I and many others interpret as the largest example of systemic worker exploitation happening in the State. We had a session here a couple of weeks ago where it became clear that one was most likely to contract Covid in three areas: a healthcare setting, a nursing home or a meat plant. While there are issues with healthcare settings and nursing homes, we can at least point to the fact that the State flew planes to China to get PPE for our acute hospitals. The Army delivered PPE to nursing homes, including private nursing homes.

I thank the MRCI again for all the work it has been doing and all the data it has been providing us, not only for this session but for the session we had with the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine a few weeks ago. Were there any instances where the State provided PPE or any additional equipment to workers in meat plants because not only have many employers let these workers down but the State has abandoned them in these plants to deal with this awful virus?

Ms McKeown mentioned that the contracts do not reflect their terms and conditions. In every contribution both witnesses have made, there is another example of something horrific going on, from a worker's perspective, in these plants. Would Ms McKeown provide more detail on that?

According to the interviews she has done most recently and previous interviews she has done, I understand there are massive barriers even to getting to meet these workers. If she could elaborate on what type of barriers are put in her place inasmuch as she can by the employers, I would appreciate it.

Ms Bríd McKeown

I completely agree with the Deputy's comments on PPE. One of our questions is: if meat factories are deemed an essential place to remain open during Covid where was the risk assessment in preparation to make workers safe at the beginning of the outbreak?

With regards to the question on terms and conditions, 15% of the people we spoke to did not have contracts, 9% were not sure if they had contracts and a further 13% said their contracts did not reflect their terms and conditions. We are seeing that most among workers who have been in plants for ten or 15 years and who have contracts that reflect their conditions whenever they began to work, which they probably signed in their home country - Botswana or South Africa. They have been here for years without any change in their employment standards, the amount that they are valued, or any opportunity for progression or promotion. We have heard reports over the past year or two that workers are being given new contracts in English on the factory floor and being asked to sign them without them being translated or explained, and being subject to intimidation when there is resistance to signing contracts.

Regarding the barriers that we face, we have worked for the past year and a half to build up relationships with migrant workers in these sectors. They are poorly treated. There is a day-to-day lack of respect and value bestowed on them and a significant lack of trust among workers in any authorities or outsiders. It has taken us a lot of time to build up trustworthy relationships. Based on those, we have been able to establish relationships with groups of workers in different parts of the country and connect workers together. That has helped workers feel less isolated. One of the key barriers is language, access to resources and access to information about their employment rights. A suite of measures was promised whenever the meat sector work permits were introduced relating to the responsibilities of the employer to provide English for speakers of other languages, ESOL, and a series of information sessions or resources on employment rights.

To date, the MRCI does not know if that has been delivered. The main barriers are language, trust and the division of workers. I refer to setting workers against each other in the workplace. We have done much work to bring people together from different backgrounds to show solidarity with one another.

When we had a debate with the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, some weeks ago, he was very defensive and borderline aggressive in his responses. Responding to me, he said I was entitled to my own opinions but not to my own facts. That was when I was referencing the figures being put together by the MCRI and the trade unions. Knowing the people and processes behind how those figures were collected, I trust those data 100%. That is especially the case given that when the Government responded it had no backup for the figures it was offering. Why is there so much defensiveness concerning figures on migrant workers in this sector and why is the sector so opaque with those numbers?

Ms Bríd McKeown

I ask Ms McGinley to answer that question.

Ms Edel McGinley

Does the Deputy want the long or the short answer?

For once, we will take the long answer.

Yes, that will be fine.

Ms Edel McGinley

Turning to the question of why the sector is so opaque, it is hard to know the answer. We need to go back to the value added, the profit produced, the tax generated and the vested interests in this industry. We must look at the bigger picture. I imagine the sector does not want to be seen as one dependent on migrant labour and which wants to paint itself as a sector that still has many Irish workers. There are Irish workers in this sector who are also treated poorly and badly and who are also on low pay. It is important to remember that aspect as well. I am not sure why the industry tries to obfuscate - I cannot say "obfuscate" sometimes, I am sorry - the figures.

Me neither. I sympathise.

Ms Edel McGinley

It does not make sense to me. It is important that we know who is in the industry. It is not a bad thing to know if migrant workers are here and it is not a bad thing to know if migrant workers are on work permits. We need to know so we know the vulnerabilities in the sector. There was little scrutiny of how the meat industry made arguments for additional work permits being issued. We must also look at the amount of exports. We supply a great deal of meat to Europe and other areas. As that grows, there is a corresponding demand for workers. I do not think there is enough transparency in the correlation between the amount of exports and the demand for workers. I do not have the detail on that aspect, but it is something that needs to be looked at some more.

I thank Ms McGinley for her answers and for her work in this area.

One of the economic arguments, although there are other arguments, made in favour of processing in Ireland and against live exports is the number of jobs being created in Ireland. If those jobs are being filled by migrant workers, perhaps that is seen to diminish that argument. I do not know, but Ms. McGinley made an interesting point.

Ms Edel McGinley

I do not think it should be a case of jobs at all costs in the context of work and people's rights and entitlements. It should not be the lowest common denominator for jobs. If jobs are created that is great, but they need to be quality jobs.

I accept Ms McGinley's point, but I am just stating that is one of the economic arguments made in favour of processing in Ireland. I call Deputy Cairns of the Social Democrats.

I thank the witnesses for highlighting the bigger picture regarding vested interests, and for the comparison of how the exports from the sector are valued versus the workers in the sector.

The pandemic highlighted many of the social injustices in our society and the erosion of the State's role in recent years which leaves vulnerable groups exposed to increased risk. It is evident in nursing homes, in direct provision centres and in this case. The scale of the outbreaks in meat processing plants illustrated the harrowing underlying issues in the sector. We are all aware of the unsustainable low prices that farmers have received from them and now a clear picture has been painted of the conditions that workers endure there too. We must consider, like Ms McGinley said, whether the large amount of migrants in this sector contributed to the conditions that facilitate the outbreaks.

A few weeks ago, the then Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, assured me that migrant workers in this area "have the exact same rights as all Irish workers". Subsequently, after several questions to that Department, I learned that since 2015 some 622 migrant workers have been issued general employment permits which fall into the stamp 1 immigration category meaning they have greatly reduced access to social welfare and other related supports. In addition, Ms McGinley's submission shows us that conditions attached to immigration status create vulnerabilities and challenges for workers who are, in effect, tied to their employers.

Ms McGinley's submission has a number of excellent recommendations this committee and the Government should act on. Further to those, can Ms McGinley suggest reforms to our immigration system that would help to strengthen the rights and capacities of migrants and their families?

Ms Edel McGinley

I disagree with the assertion in the Chamber in terms of workers being on work permits. Everybody has the same rights but not everybody has the same ability to claim their rights. Certain sets of circumstances impact on a person's ability to claim and enforce their rights. Those circumstances might include access to information, or fear in a sector. I cannot overstate how much the fear of loss of employment and of losing one's immigration status impacts on people asserting and claiming their rights.

I mentioned sectoral permits in the context of the reform of the immigration system. The gold standard is the green card which gives a person access to the labour market. In the case of nurses, for example, a person works for two years in the nursing sector, but after two years he or she has full access to the labour market and has a completely different set of rights. The green card is specific to a sector for a two-year period. The gold standard is the green card and that is what we would like to see. A subsector of that is the sectoral permits. I am happy to supply more detailed information on that to any Deputy who would like to see it. There are a few things in that and we would be happy to write up something for Deputy Cairns.

That would be great and it is perhaps something the committee could consider furthering.

The other issue I wish to raise is the Black Lives Matter movement. Long-overdue conversations about racism in Ireland have also gained prominence recently. Ms McGinley's report highlights issues around institutional racism and discrimination suffered by workers. Given that this House was mostly united in its desire for action on racism in Ireland and abroad, does Ms McGinley have any key recommendations? I know it is a long and complex issue and we are tight on time, but like the previous two Deputies, I would appreciate if any documents on that could be sent on.

As time is tight I will put this in at the end. Ms McGinley's recommendation stresses the importance of inspections. Can she elaborate on the necessity of properly unannounced labour and health and safety inspections by State authorities in meat plants?

Ms Edel McGinley

Unannounced inspections are necessary on both levels for labour inspectors and for the HSA. I have made reference to it already. It cannot be overestimated how important these inspections are. If people have time, they can tidy up, hide and brush under the carpet whatever it is that happens, or get workers who might be troublemakers out of the way by giving them a day off so they will not say anything.

Part of the problem with inspections is the lack of consultation and communication with workers. We, therefore, rely predominantly on a management or owner's compliance. In fairness to the labour inspectorate, it can only inspect records so there are limitations. There are also many limitations in terms of having adequate resources to conduct proper intelligence gathering, inspections and enforcement. However, inspections need to happen and workers need to be talked to, which takes time. To build on what Ms McKeown said, if there is such a distrust of authority, and people have been failed over and over again, it will take time to talk to a worker, build trust and generate the evidence that a State body needs to make proper recommendations. This matter needs time, investment and probably a different approach.

Can the committee play a role in ensuring these necessary inspections are carried out in that way?

We cannot conduct inspections but we can make recommendations to amend legislation and to change practices by State agencies.

It would be great to do that.

The Deputy is welcome to join us when we write the report. I call Deputy Murphy.

I thank the MRCI for its work on this matter. It has outlined a case of criminal neglect of health and workers' rights by the State. I hope what is a major scandal in terms of the treatment of these workers in regard to Covid-19 serves as a wake-up call concerning their treatment going into the future.

I will try not to ask the same questions as other members. The MRCI has highlighted that 90% of workers here do not get sick pay. When I spoke to people connected to the industry I heard of cases where workers took paracetamol to bring their temperatures down so it would not be discovered when they were scanned on their way into work. That action was linked to a culture of fear that exists in the meat factories and the absence of sick pay. Have the witnesses heard of this happening and are the reasons the same?

Ms Bríd McKeown

I agree with what has been said. The lack of sick pay during such a crucial time contributes to such decisions. If one is in low wage employment and work in an intimidating environment where one is threatened during that time then one could act to maintain one's job in the absence of sick pay. To be honest, we have not heard a huge number of these reports. Many workers were just very concerned for their own safety, the safety of their colleagues and the safety of their own families, which was paramount for people.

Specifically on the allegation that workers took paracetamol to lower temperature, has the MRCI encountered that?

Ms Bríd McKeown

Nobody that we have worked with has said that they did that.

The witnesses have been clear but I ask them to elaborate on a matter. Last May, the then Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, said in the Dáil that migrant workers in meat factories "are not tied to any one employer. If they wish to work for somebody else, they may do so". In terms of how the system operates, that is inaccurate.

Ms Edel McGinley

Yes. When people have work permit, they must work for their employer for one year but after that year they can change employer, in theory. There is a difference between theory and practice, which is misunderstood. If one wants to change one's employer, one must find a new employer who will apply for a work permit that costs €1,000.

The worker has to fulfil what is known as the 50:50 rule and has to fulfil a labour market test. The worker has to get assistance to apply for that if English is not the first language. We have been working for 19 years with people who come to us to access help to get work permits and change work permits. It is very difficult for applicants unless they have supports. It is not an effective way. While it is possible in theory, technically it is quite difficult because of the fear of losing immigration status and because immigration status is directly tied to the work permit, this acts as a massive barrier for people. Obviously, no one wants to be undocumented in the State. We did not mention undocumented workers but there are some undocumented workers working in the meat industry as well. It is not an effective way to change employment.

All of that adds to the already existing power imbalance between the owners of these factories and the workers. It makes it even more extreme, which obviously adds to cases like this.

Ms Edel McGinley

There is an opportunity, if I may add a comment. A Bill was going through the Oireachtas previously around reforms to the work permit system, within which there was a move towards the introduction of seasonal work permits. We would not be in favour of that because it lessens workers' rights. There are moves to look at changing the work permit system. It is really important in the move to change that we do not continue to work off the same old outdated system that we have.

Ms McGinley is saying no or very few unannounced inspections take place either of working conditions or of health and safety. Is that correct?

Ms Edel McGinley

I would not say there are none in terms of the labour inspectors but the number is minimal. My understanding is that most of the Health and Safety Authority inspections have been announced. The committee would have to ask the HSA about the figures on that because I do not have them.

Can I get one more question?

Yes, go ahead.

It is a general question. I raised this with the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, on 30 April. I said we needed to have inspections of meat factories. He accused me of smearing the meat factories and the employers. Why were they so defensive? Deputy Bríd Smith made the point about neglect in the third biggest sector in terms of clusters. Why have previous Governments proved so defensive of the sector?

Ms Edel McGinley

It is a very embedded sector in our economy, from farmers to meat processors to ancillary workers. It is a big employer and provides links to rural communities and other things.

In fairness, I do not think most farmers would be overly protective of meat factories. In any event, that question has been asked and answered. If it had been a new question, I might have been more indulgent.

Ms Edel McGinley

It is a question of vested interests.

That is the response. We will hear from Deputy Shanahan from the Regional Group next.

I thank our contributors today. I am keen to highlight that considerable work has been done by Deputy Naughten in this area. He was the first to break the story in terms of the sharing of data. It was evident that the contact tracing had broken down, which was the reason for sharing the information. Do the contributors have a view on when data privilege trumps personal or public health risks?

Ms Edel McGinley

Dr. Tony Holohan himself confirmed that it was a breach of confidentiality and that it did not trump a person's right to privacy or to have personal data protected. That is fundamental. Health data are considered to be one of the gold standards under data protection. It is really important. As we said before, there was no problem as long as workers were informed. If there is a secondary layer to protect public health, then that is fine but that is not what it is.

To be quite honest, I am still not clear on what it is.

Ms McGinley's own statement reflects the comments of Dr. Mai Mannix, who highlighted the language differences and the time it was taking to contact people. This needs to be borne in mind in future. In light of what happened in Germany, we are all afraid of a second wave. There are lessons to be learned. I commend Ms McGinley on the points she made regarding the HSA inspections. This mirrors the practices of HIQA, which lets hospitals know its officials are coming the day beforehand. It is wholly unacceptable. We need to change those practices. The HSA should arrive unannounced. I have five years of work experience in the meat sector and I know quite a bit about it. People operate to very different standards within it. The employers whom I know would certainly not fear an unannounced inspection. That should happen.

With regard to the sectoral permits about which Ms McGinley spoke, from where is the resistance to allowing workers to move from one employer to another coming? Who is challenging MRCI's work in that regard?

Ms Edel McGinley

The Department of jobs.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation?

Ms Edel McGinley

The Department, which is to be given responsibility for enterprise, trade and employment.

Has the MRCI asked the Department about the legal basis for its resistance? I know someone could begin a contract for work and then move on but in other countries one is allowed move after a period of time. Why are these people embedded with an individual employer for such a length of time?

Ms Edel McGinley

This is provided for in the Employment Permits (Amendment) Act 2014. To introduce sectoral permits that Act must be amended.

Has the MRCI lobbied in that regard?

Ms Edel McGinley

Yes, many times.

I suggest to the Chairman that this may be something on which the committee could report. The written submission stated that 82.5% of workers do not live in employer-provided accommodation. In April, some employees of our local meat factories were travelling 150 miles up the country to meet others at the weekend. That must be addressed. It is not only the factories that have obligations; the employees also have an obligation to look at their own practices in respect of the public health measures, as do we all.

My final question may have been answered to a degree but do the witnesses feel there are factories that are still not 100% compliant with Covid guidelines and HSA regulations?

Ms Bríd McKeown

With regard to workers' responsibilities and their behaviour in respect of Covid, if one is working in a work environment in which one's employer has not implemented any health and safety measures and in which one is working shoulder to shoulder with people at the same or even an increased rate of production, the employer has a responsibility to give resources and information to workers about good hygiene practices and social distancing. A lot of the public information that was made available was in English so people were not necessarily being educated at the same rate as domestic English speakers. If one is being exposed at work, day in, day out, one has less of an incentive to maintain social distancing outside of work. The conversation regarding workers' behaviour during that time really negates the legal obligations on employers to have put in appropriate health and safety measures.

I accept that. The other area that appears to be unregulated is agency employment. The representatives have spoken about employees working for between €10 and €11.50 an hour. When I worked in the meat industry, awarding bonuses was standard as a means to increase productivity levels. It is unbelievable that people are working for these wages. I assume the agency is getting a margin. Has the MRCI done anything to understand what the agency contracts demand of employees? That is an area that needs to be challenged in the future.

Ms Edel McGinley

We have limited data. At the moment we are collecting data on agency workers and their conditions in the sector. As we said, such workers are in the minority, but we want to understand the area better. We will come back to the Deputy when we have more information.

I thank the Deputy. It is interesting that what the MRCI has said is substantiated by the SIPTU contribution to the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions.

According to it, workers earn the minimum wage or slightly above it, but some workers are on piecework and paid on the basis of the kilograms they process. I suppose that is meant to incentivise them, but it is basically minimum wage.

That begs a question about how they are only earning the minimum wage. I have worked in the meat business and productivity and bonus schemes are how one increases production.

Perhaps it is a question that we could usefully put to Meat Industry Ireland during the next session.

I thank the witnesses for their work and for attending. I thank Ms McGinley for contacting my office about migrants in factories. In my area, it seems that migrants are treated well in those factories that we have spoken to, but it is difficult to get information about migrants and how they are managed in factories.

The witnesses cited a statistic of 60% or 70% of migrant workers in factories facing major issues. After speaking to Ms McGinley, we contacted the nearest plant to me, which is based in Rathkeale, County Limerick, and is owned by ABP Food Group. It told us that the plant was 100% clear of Covid cases and that Covid response teams had been established at every ABP site at the end of February. There are 50 meat factories in Ireland. ABP accounts for nine of those. Some 30% of factories are doing things right-----

On not naming people, although people rarely object to being named if it is being done to hold them up as paragons of virtue,-----

I will not cite anyone out of character.

-----I would still caution against it.

I am just saying that I spoke to that ABP plant and asked it about what it had done for its employees. I am giving the basis for what we are saying. MCRI has spoken to migrant workers. Are there pockets around the country that are experiencing issues? In the context of previous contributions to the committee, is there a problem with management in factories not carrying out work properly on behalf of the workers?

A submission was given to the committee yesterday. According to it, every member of staff from management down is tested every day. However, we have just heard a suggestion that some people are taking paracetamol to reduce their temperatures. According to the submission, the HSE guidelines are being followed, the worst-case scenario is constantly under review and there are several Covid marshals. This all goes back to management. If we have to fix this problem, we must go to every meat producer in the country and figure out where they are falling down, but there are people who are doing their work correctly and we do not want to paint every meat factory with the same brush. Anyone who is working and treating migrant workers properly needs to be commended. I am not saying that ABP is doing this right or wrong, but it has the nearest factory to me and gave me a full list of what it was doing. It has nine plants in Ireland, representing approximately one fifth of all plants in Ireland.

We need to sort out the pockets and work together to ensure that all factories are compliant and looking after every migrant worker. In order for us to be more productive for the witnesses and to get the proper result for migrants, we need to know the pockets where factories are falling down. MRCI has statistics from the people it has spoken to and could work that information into graphs for areas around the country. We could then figure out the situation in each of our counties. Each Deputy from each county could get involved and ask why this or that factory was not up to standard. Where there is a larger problem in a different part of the country, we could come together and push to ensure compliance.

Could Ms McGinley give us statistics on where meat plants are falling short in this country, and if there are pockets in that regard, so that we can address those factories and help her organisation in the future?

Ms Edel McGinley

With respect, I do not think it is our role to give statistics on where individual factories are falling short. That is a role for the State. We are here to put forward how workers have been treated. We have said already that there is a massive inconsistency in approach across the country. As we stated, some factories acted immediately and protected their workers in good faith. All factories now have temperature testing.

Of all workers?

Ms Edel McGinley

Yes, of workers coming in. Ms McKeown might confirm if that is correct.

Ms Bríd McKeown

The majority.

Ms Edel McGinley

I am sorry, it is the majority. There are smaller factories as well. We hear from workers that there is PPE and temperature testing but social distancing is still an issue. Because of the production lines in the industry people are still in quite close proximity to each other and it is hard to social distance. People are still concerned for their health and safety at the moment and they are really concerned that the practices are kept up in terms of the measures that have been introduced. There is a concern that they are just in place in the case of an inspection. Some 60% of workers do not know who their health and safety officer is. There is such a history of non-compliance and lack of value that people are really worried that the protections that have been put in place will slip. We have seen that in the past.

This goes back to what a previous speaker said: the Department has given us one set of figures to show that it has no concerns but the witnesses have given us another side showing they have concerns. In order to help we must have co-operation so that we can know if there are pockets or cases of people not stepping up to the mark. It is the only way we can help. We are going through the guidelines. In order to help we have to be able to say that the statistics we have been given are wrong and to say where the problem is. If we keep doing what we are doing we will go around in circles and nobody can help each other.

What we do know is that there were 850 cases of Covid-19 in 16 clusters in meat factories.

Ms Edel McGinley

There are new figures.

We should perhaps move on to the next speaker.

It is clear that there are huge disadvantages in terms of health, income and other factors associated with working in meat plants. That is not just in Ireland, it is in England, France and America. The working conditions such as the lower temperature, the proximity of workers to each other, the long hours that they work and the close conditions in which they live exacerbate the issue. That is unacceptable.

I acknowledge the issues that have been raised in terms of employment law and unions. I accept that is for a different forum. We are looking for a solution to the health issues. If one cannot vindicate the rights of people in terms of their working conditions, where they live and how they travel to work then it does not make sense for that to continue. I appreciate and fully support what the witnesses have said. While we do not have figures in Ireland I have seen figures from the UK about minority communities, as opposed to mainstream communities, who get Covid. In other words, it is the case that because of the conditions in which they live or where they work, immigrants seem to suffer more from this illness. What are the three or five key points that we need to put in place now to protect workers in this situation assuming that the health issues are prioritised?

What does Ms McGinley see as the immediate solution to these problems?

Ms Edel McGinley

We have outlined some of the solutions. They include unannounced inspections from the HSA. We need better data, both from the HSA and, as the last speaker suggested, in terms of where the clusters are. We need a focus on those areas and those industries. We need some kind of sectoral agreement for this area. That is difficult given that we do not have proper collective bargaining legislation in this State. That issue also needs to be looked at and addressed by the current Government. We would like to see more of a focus on a sectoral or task-force approach that would bring together employer bodies, the State and unions to look at this area and to scrutinise the State funds going into this industry when such low wages are given to workers.

It is not in the committee's gift to give workers a bonus or higher pay but it may be in its gift to ask Meat Industry Ireland what its intentions are in that regard and if it will propose something to reward its workers for coming to work every day in hazardous conditions and to give people a bonus for the recent period. That may be a gift the committee can give workers.

We need better data and we need the HSA to be more transparent in how it does its work and in its findings. Not everything is reported on and I understand the reasons for the approach it takes. There could be a whistleblower who reports and the individual is not identified, and that is important. However, there is a public interest element that is not being served and the HSA needs to look, in the public interest, at the terms on which it was set up and at what its role and remit is.

I do not disagree with Ms McGinley at all. Communities in my town of Drogheda - the migrant community, for instance - tend to be isolated and not to mix with other people. In trying to get people together across communities, we had a function in Drogheda where we had more than 30 people speaking different languages. It was a wonderful event. They showed off their culture, language, heritage and so on. There is a great deal of work to be done in embracing all the people from all of the different countries that come into our society. One of the criticisms made of the Covid response, at least initially, was that we did not provide adequate advertising and public information sessions in different languages. The core issue is that people who lived in isolated communities were not addressed by public information campaigns, particularly by health information campaigns. Is that a fair point? What do we need to do?

Ms Edel McGinley

It is a fair point in terms of building confidence by people having access to information in their own languages. Nasc Ireland did a series of Covid-specific information videos in people's own language.

The labour market is a key site of integration for people in the State. Pay and conditions are an important part of that. A person working 50 or 60 hours per week starts at 7 a.m., does not get home until 5 p.m., and is ready to drop because the work is so hard and he or she is on their feet all day, perhaps in a cold environment and working on a line all day. That type of work impacts massively on a person's ability to engage in wider society and in the social life of his or her community. We must tackle long hours and low pay; we are a low-pay economy with one in five people in the State on low pay. If we do not look at that in a holistic way, that is something that is of concern.

I thank the witnesses.

Deputy Mairéad Farrell has ten minutes.

Gabhaim buíochas as an gcur i láthair.

I found the opening statement extremely powerful and what is particularly scandalous is that we have known of the concerns for workers in meat processing factories and it is something that is not new. We have known of the scandalous mistreatment of these workers, of which such a proportion are from the migrant community. Covid-19 was nearly the culmination of what we have known for so long. The fact that on 1 June there were 1,054 reported cases is frightening, especially in light of the fact that we knew there has been such concern regarding the mistreatment of workers in these factories for such a long time. I did some research and the HSE does not seem to have a figure for how many of those cases were migrant workers. According to the MRCI's report, six out of every ten workers are migrant workers. What percentage of workers who contracted Covid-19 were migrant workers?

Ms Bríd McKeown

It is hard for us to say because we speak mostly with migrant workers. We have spoken to a few Irish workers but our data poll is over-representative of migrant workers. Going back to my earlier point, even though 58% of the workforce is from a migrant background, those people are over-represented on factory floors and that is where the greatest level of exposure to Covid took place. I am led to believe that people from a migrant background are in the majority in contracting Covid-19 but we do not have data to say that.

That is something that I would have imagined to be the case as well What Ms. McGinley said about Ireland being a low-pay economy highlights the impact of low wages on people's lives. A significant element of the Government's response to Covid-19 was based on personal responsibility but having read the centre's opening statement, the reality is that if a person is in a low income job it is taken out of their control in a number of ways. Housing is likely to be cramped, work conditions are precarious and dire, and a person's ability to stay away from the workplace is limited. If this work was more well paid, would that have limited the rate of infection given workers' own personal housing situations and so on?

Ms Edel McGinley

With respect, that may be the wrong question. If I can turn it round, it is more about how the business of work is conducted. How are workers consulted? What are the mechanisms in place within a factory to talk to workers and to consult about their health and safety?

Low-paid workers value the work they do. Many of the people we work with have been in these jobs for up to 15 years. They are skilled in this work and they value it. Unfortunately, the work they do is not as valued, or they are not as valued, by others. There are a number of deficiencies, not just low pay. If a workforce has less power than the management or owners and there is a massive power imbalance, that gap is where the issues really arise. Would Ms McKeown like to add to that?

Ms Bríd McKeown

No, I agree with what Ms McGinley has said.

I come from a German-speaking household, as my mother is German, and so I understand the language barriers from when my granny moved over. I found it distressing and disturbing that the Government failed to translate the literature that was key for so many people to ensure they had accurate information on social distancing and their rights. We learned this week that huge money was spent on that and the fact that it was not done at the very start is baffling to me. How significant was that? Is the material which has been translated and is now available sufficient? If not, what else needs to be made available?

Ms Edel McGinley

This goes back to my earlier point. It is fine to have things available and posted, but training and information on their meaning is important. We can have information, but we must be trained on what that means for workplaces. That then has to be monitored and fed back and workers must also be part of the decision-making. That has been a big gap because workers are not part of the decision-making in how Covid is addressed. Their voices are not being heard within plants and they are not consulted. That is deficient.

I totally agree with Ms McGinley on that. Unfortunately, that is the reality in our society across many workplaces. The quote included in her opening statement regarding contact tracing was outrageous. I know there were some translation services available but was English the main language used in contact tracing? Was the information given to workers with Covid-19 in their native language to distribute to their household contacts sufficient? The fact that they had to distribute that themselves when they had tested positive is outrageous as well.

Ms Edel McGinley

We do not have information on that. The HSE must detail that and outline what languages it talked to people in, how it provided information to people and what the follow-up was. We do not have that detail at all so that is something the HSE needs to answer. There are gaps in our knowledge on this and, indeed, in all our knowledge.

Of course, MRCI can only do so much.

Ms Edel McGinley

The HSE is a big gap for us, as we mentioned earlier this morning.

Absolutely. We will pursue this with the HSE because that is a huge issue for so many people, especially when there are low levels of literacy and all that. It is outrageous that this information was not provided in workers' native languages from the very beginning, particularly given that we know a certain number of specific languages are mainly used.

I refer to the agency staff. One thing that sprung out at me in Ms McGinley's opening statement was the fact that many workers were concerned about the Covid outbreaks being made public and that it could have an effect on their workplace, which is totally understandable.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it probably would have done so in many situations. With regard to agency staff, were those who were hired through an agency more concerned? Did they feel they were in a more precarious situation? Did the agency itself have a role to play in the health and safety of the workers?

Ms Bríd McKeown

I re-emphasise that agency workers are a minority. Most workers are employed directly by their employers. The reports we heard of agency workers were specifically about workers recruited by agencies in their home countries and very much managed by those agencies. They were put into agency-owned accommodation and the relationship through their terms and conditions was with the agency rather than directly with the employer. For a group of workers in the south west this involved being forced to register as self-employed independent contractors in Poland and all their finances were processed in Poland. Essentially, when it came to Covid they were not able to access healthcare and did not have PPS numbers. They were EU nationals who had newly arrived in the State. They were specifically disproportionately affected during Covid in a very different way to people directly employed by their employers. There were increased barriers. This is something we have heard reports about only in the past two to three months and it is something we will definitely seek to investigate further.

Does this mean they were not entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment?

Ms Bríd McKeown

Yes, that was the case.

Ms Edel McGinley

My understanding is that people were supported to apply for PPS numbers to try to apply for the payment then.

Ms Bríd McKeown

But they had not built up enough time in the State to be able to do so. They were also asked to apply for illness benefit rather than the Covid pandemic payment.

It was remiss of me not to thank all of those working in the meat plants because it was one of the sectors, as the witnesses highlighted in their remarks, that kept going throughout the height of the pandemic. This should be acknowledged. Whatever scheme the employer or the State looks at it is certainly warranted to acknowledge appreciation.

Ms McGinley said that not all factories and companies are in the same boat. We are having quite a pessimistic conversation about the meat sector but it does not involve every factory. In saying this, there are some that are particularly persistent with light-touch regulation and those are the ones we need to home in on. It has also been mentioned that there could be some undocumented workers and, particularly with the advance notification of inspections, people being told not to come in or conveniently going off shift for a little while. Will the witnesses speak about the evidence they have of this or the experiences they have been told about to enlighten us on these issues?

Ms Edel McGinley

We have been working with undocumented workers for more than 15 years. They are represented in all sectors in the economy and agrifood is no different. Generally they are employed in much smaller factories or sections of this particular subset of the industry. It is not a high number, according to our information. We will have a new survey coming out soon on undocumented migrants. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to introduce a scheme for undocumented migrants and it will be very welcome to include all workers in this, including this group of workers.

It has been our experience over the years with regard to inspections that people who may be more vocal may be asked not to come in.

I am not saying this is particular to this industry.

Ms Edel McGinley

I think it is systematic across the sector and employers can prepare for it if they wish. Again, I am not painting every employer with the same brush. We do know, however, that there are higher incidences of exploitation and non-compliance across the sector. Enforcement, therefore, is key to moving forward, as is the necessary money for the agencies responsible.

Absolutely. We now see that the R-nought is close to 1. That is alarming in itself, but if there were a second wave - I am reading a statement for our next session - do the witnesses think things would improve, or have they improved already? Surely the figures for the past couple of weeks indicate that all factories seem to have got on board and realised that this has to be dealt with. In addition, the number of inspections increased and the public spotlight was on the sector so, naturally, improvements happened. If, however, there were a second wave, we would have to be conscious of what we have just experienced. If the witnesses are saying the majority of all plants now have temperature controls and all the other facilities, that is welcome. However, is Ms McGinley confident, just from her experience, that the sector would continue to comply as it is complying today if there were a second wave?

Ms Edel McGinley

We can only go on what the workers tell us, which paints a very mixed picture. Some are confident and some are very unconfident about the statistics we have provided to the committee. Many people are scared this will slip back. Production levels are the same. It would be interesting to ask the meat industry about its production levels right throughout the pandemic and now - how high they were and what the output was throughout the sector. That would be indicative of how quickly workers are working and where they are working. That is a really important piece of information we do not have.

Equally, from Ms McGinley's own experience, from what she has been told and from what her organisation has learned about those who reported symptoms of illness, regardless of whether it was thought to be Covid, and those who actually reported sick, can she enlighten us on her experience with workers who have come to her organisation with those experiences?

Ms Edel McGinley

Does Ms McKeown wish to answer some of that?

Ms Bríd McKeown

Sorry, what was the Deputy's question?

I am asking about people who have reported sick or as having felt symptoms. What was their experience with the willingness of their employers to allow a day off or testing of the employee? What measures were taken to prevent a potential spread? This is the advice to which we are all adhering now.

Ms Bríd McKeown

I think some people were told to go straight home. Some people who perhaps did not have symptoms felt pressure to go to work. I think many people were concerned about the loss of wages. I think there were also instances - these are anecdotal reports - of people who said they lived with another worker, both were tested, one tested negative and one positive, and the worker who tested negative was still asked to go to work rather than self-isolate for two weeks. I think there was pressure on workers to come to work but, equally, there was a lot of intimidating and threatening behaviour surrounding compliance in respect of Covid as well. That lack of communication with workers existed for sure, but we do not have specific statistics from workers who were or were not sick. We did not ask our respondents whether they tested positive.

Finally, did the witnesses see a spike in the number of cases they were dealing with in their regular work at the outset compared with the height of the pandemic? Has this given them a massive surge in case numbers? I am assuming it has but I would just like confirmation of that.

How many are we talking about? How many cases has the MRCI dealt with from March to date?

Ms Edel McGinley

Our work probably tripled in a five-week period. We responded to 855 people who were coming to the service. Obviously, our service had to work remotely.

A total of 855.

Ms Edel McGinley

It was 855 in a five-week period. That would be unusual. That is a quarter of our work for a year. We had a huge spike in calls and emails where we were responding to people. This was mainly around Covid payments, health and safety, and if people did not have access to exceptional needs payments and such. That was a huge spike in our services in that time.

I would have thought they were not all from the meat industry. What other sectors were people in?

Ms Edel McGinley

Healthcare, domestic work, retail, restaurants, hotel, catering - across the board. There were a lot of undocumented migrants contacting our services as well. Those were the main ones.

I thank Ms McGinley. If I may, I will ask a couple of questions. Does Deputy O'Donoghue want to come back in? I was going to bring the Deputy in at the end but if he wants to come in now, he may go ahead.

I am disheartened to hear that people would have no access to payments, especially if they have been coming from the likes of Poland and becoming self-employed here. I am self-employed. I do not have any migrant workers. Every one of our workers is considered to be a team member. I would hate to see that anyone is treated with such disrespect and that anyone who has worked, and especially who had kept us going as a country at a time of pandemic, and kept food on our tables would be treated any differently.

From my point of view, as I stated earlier, I will do whatever I can do from my side of things. I believe everyone else here, collectively, will do the same. We all need to work with the statistics and the facts that the MRCI has along with the other ones because they are all conflicting and we need to find the true picture so that we can all help.

I am coming back to this report by the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions that SIPTU contributed to. It states:

Violations of workers' rights are more frequent in the red meat industry – as it is poorly organised. The situation is slightly better in the pork and poultry industry where the level of unionization is higher. SIPTU will try to increase membership and negotiate a collective agreement that improves pay, ensures pension and sick pay for all meat workers in Ireland but the lack of engagement from the employers hinders any attempt to strengthen social dialogue.

Then, crucially, it states:

Access to site for trade unions is also extremely challenging. The employer doesn't have an obligation to bargain collectively even if high levels of union membership exist.

Has Ms McGinley ever encountered difficulty with site access or does she typically meet workers in the meat industry off-site?

Ms Edel McGinley

We would typically meet them off-site. We would not go on-site to workers. We would not want to expose them in any way. We get in touch with people worker-to-worker by word of mouth and build our connections that way.

It is a big issue for the State more generally around collective bargaining and the recognition of trade unions to bargain collectively in the meat industry and other industry. The lack of recognition of unions by employers is a real problem in the State. What SIPTU is referring to in its submission is that lack of recognition. There is a lot of hostility towards unions and worker representative organisations from employers and employer bodies.

Ms Bríd McKeown

We have also found reports of intimidation of workers who become union members. As Ms McGinley said, when inspections are announced often those people are seen as troublemakers and they are either given the day off or not invited to certain meetings. There is definitely a lack of proactive engagement with union members on site.

We have some time remaining. Returning to the issue of work permits, is it the case that it is not possible to get a work permit from within the country and that it is necessary to apply from outside Ireland? How does that work?

Ms Edel McGinley

Several steps have to be taken. It is difficult for employers to get work permits. We have a system based on a skills-based model. It does not take into account the labour market and where the labour market might be. The expert group on future skills needs makes recommendations on eligible categories of employment and there are many ineligible categories of employment in the work permit system.

In the red meat industry, several quotas were introduced in the last three years because the meat industry demonstrated, or provided data that seemed to demonstrate, a demand for new work permits. It is then necessary for a job to be advertised for a certain period of time. It is also necessary to comply with a rule requiring that no more than 50% of workers be from outside the EU, adherence to which I believe may now be questionable. Potentially, that might be why some of the data from the sector are a little unclear. It is called the 50:50 rule and it is in our legislation.

Let us take a person working for one meat factory who perhaps does not like his or her job or the employer does not like the him or her. If a worker who is a third-country national here on a work permit is let go or leaves a job, how is it then possible for him or her to go on to work for another company, in the same area or another area?

Ms Edel McGinley

It is not necessary for that person to leave the country, but he or she will have to apply for a new work permit. The employer applying for that new work permit will have to fulfil the same conditions. It is, therefore, hard to move jobs because it is not possible for a person to work in the State without a work permit and it could take six weeks to two months, or longer, to get that work permit in place. It is a difficult process. If a worker decides a job is really bad and he or she wants to leave and get another job down the road or in the next town, that job will have to be advertised in the national newspapers and there will be a cost to the employer. Somebody also has to pay €1,000 for the work permit. That can be an employer or a worker, and much of the time it can fall to the worker in renewal circumstances.

Is that provided for in law?

Ms Edel McGinley

It is.

It can be the employee.

Ms Edel McGinley

It is provided for in law because it was our experience, particularly in the case of renewals, that many workers were paying for their own employment permits. If a permit was refused, it was then important that the worker got his or her money back and not the employer. It is possible to tick a box, basically. It was an important move that people would have the ability to apply for their own work permits and that was something for which we campaigned. A major reason concerned the money. I am sorry, I have forgotten my train of thought.

My apologies for interrupting Ms McGinley. I was curious about the difficulties in moving from one employment situation to another if a person is here on the basis of a work permit.

Ms Edel McGinley

It is difficult because it is necessary to meet many rules, such as the 50:50 rule, the labour market test, the payment for the employment permit and getting an employer who will apply for a work permit. Many larger employers are familiar with the work permit system and how to make an application. They will have a HR team on staff, but other companies will not, however, so they will not be so familiar with the process.

We are almost out of time. If a person is here as an undocumented migrant, or without any lawful basis to be here, is it possible for him or her to apply for a work permit to regularise his or her situation?

Ms Edel McGinley

No, that is not possible. It is only possible to apply for a work permit if a person has a stamp 1 in the State, and that must be obtained through an initial work permit. Will the Chair permit me to read a statement by a worker which was given to us recently?

How long is it?

Ms Edel McGinley

It is one and a half minutes.

We have a minute and a half and then we will conclude.

Ms Edel McGinley

I will close with this statement.

I work in a big meat factory with over 500 employees. I have been employed there for over ten years. We have been working very hard during the lockdown and equally now. Initially we were still working shoulder to shoulder. For us, production did not slow down during this period. For the first four weeks we had no proper PPE and no guidance about the lockdown. I am a very good worker and I value the work I do. If the disease was in the animals they would have to close the place but for workers the factories can do what they want. We had an inspection but I do not know what happened during the inspection. It looks like it is finished. Maybe we came out good. I am not sure as we are not informed. Changes have been made since they know the inspection is coming. We have full PPE, masks and shields, and temperature testing is carried out daily now, but 2 metre distancing is still impossible. There are a lot of people on the floor because production is still the same and they need many people to work. We have staggered breaks but some areas are small so we are often queuing on top of each other. It is almost four months in and I still do not really feel safe because there are so many people still working to make up orders. I think that pressure needs to be kept on meat factories to ensure compliance. Also, no worker in my factory has gotten any extra pay during this time despite working in the middle of a global pandemic without proper protections but in a sector that was deemed essential work. This is not fair. I want to ask the committee to make sure we are protected, that health and safety breaches are taken seriously and acted on, that we are respected and paid better for the work we do. I think all workers should get a bonus for the work we have done.

Thank you very much. We will suspend until 2.30 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 2 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.