On behalf of SIPTU members in the meat processing industry, I thank the committee for this opportunity to finally outline our members' ongoing and most serious concerns with regard to the prevalence of Covid-19, both inside and outside the workplace.
SIPTU is Ireland's largest trade union with almost 200,000 members and within its agriculture, ingredients, food and drink, AIFD, sector, we represent over 6,000 workers across all grades in the primary and secondary meat processing industry. Our 6,000 and more members in the meat processing industry have been extremely concerned about the potential for their exposure and, by extension, their families, to Covid-19, as they rightly believed that the industry was insufficiently prepared to deal with what was and is an unfolding public health and occupational health crisis of unprecedented nature and scale. The justified concerns of our members were predicated on the experiences being suffered by fellow meat processing and abattoir workers in the United States, Canada and across Europe. Our national network of shop stewards and health and safety representatives was in constant contact with our officials on the ground about concerns relating to the need for adequate provision of PPE, multilingual health and safety information, etc.
SIPTU took on board those legitimate concerns and responded as follows. On 20 March, we raised concerns with certain employers and public representatives about health and safety within the industry.
On 3 April, we wrote to the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, noting that our members' health and safety was of paramount importance and the need for his Department to support both industries in advance of a Covid-related European Union special agricultural committee meeting taking place on 6 April. On 10 April and 1 May, we publicly called for mandatory temperature testing to be put in place for workers in meat plants. On 28 April, we issued a letter of complaint to the Health and Safety Authority requesting inspections at a particular meat plant.
On 15 May, we again wrote to the then Minister, requesting that he bring together all elements of the meat processing industry to establish a "farm to fork" task force to deal with this unprecedented crisis. We still believe that a sector-specific strategy is required and that workers' considerations must be part of any such strategy. The Minister did not agree to such a farm to fork task force being constituted.
On 18 May, we wrote to Meat Industry Ireland, MII, seeking a meeting to discuss the ongoing and most serious impact that Covid-19 was having on our members. MII representatives refused to meet us. On 20 May, we wrote to the HSA advising of our deep concern at its testimony, given on 19 May, which confirmed that meat plant inspections were only commencing.
In June and July, we called for increased testing of workers and compliance with temperature testing and the updated HSE guidelines of 30 June. On 16 July, we again wrote to MII, following its commitment given at a meeting of this committee to meet SIPTU representatives, and I am glad to report this meeting occurred on Monday this week. At this meeting, both parties agreed to seek a meeting with the Health Service Executive national standing oversight committee to discuss the need for repeat blanket testing of workers within the industry, with an emphasis on speed of testing and results, and a protocol to deal with potential scenarios arising. MII also agreed to bring a SIPTU charter on Covid to its members for consideration. This charter addresses such issues as support for unannounced HSA inspections, compliance with HSE guidelines and temperature testing and the need for engagement on terms and conditions of employment, with particular reference to pay and sick pay provision. A further meeting is scheduled with MII representatives for 1 September.
It is now beyond doubt that the meat processing industry contains unrivalled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19, which had previously caused 1,115 meat plant workers to be infected in 20 clusters as of early July. These vectors include close proximity working, bottlenecks in canteens and toilets, noise pollution causing workers to shout to communicate and which creates droplets circulated through the industrial air cooling systems and relatively low wages causing workers to car pool, share accommodation and in many cases share rooms within that accommodation. It is notable that circa 90% of workers in the industry do not have sick pay, forcing vulnerable workers to go to work, even if they are feeling unwell with possible Covid-19 symptoms.
In mid-June, we predicted that if a second wave of Covid-19 were to arise, it would manifest itself in the meat processing industry. This article was published on 23 June and this opinion was predicated on the experiences of other countries, such as the United States and Canada, and the example in Germany, wherein two months after the country announced looser Covid-19 controls, an outbreak in a meat processing plant triggered a return to lockdown in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. This meat plant was closed after 1,500 workers tested positive for Covid-19.
In the Republic of Ireland, we now have circa 1,450 meat plant workers with confirmed Covid-19 cases, with clusters of more than 100 cases in five separate meat plants following the recent resurgence in the midlands. Other European Union countries long ago set up national outbreak control teams with the voice of meat processing workers being represented. Why has Ireland not done likewise? Surely it is the workers who would have greater knowledge of the position on the ground and it is the workers and their families who are vulnerable and most at risk. Why did the HSA not commence inspections at meat plants until late in May and why do we still have very few unannounced inspections? The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, performs an excellent public duty through its unannounced inspections. Do we cherish the quality of our food more than the safety of our people?
Hourly rates of basic pay across the industry generally range from minimum wage to €12.50 per hour, with some skilled workers able to accrue an additional premium payment through piece-rates and bonuses. Everyone recognises that meat processing is an essential service but this must be recognised with reasonable rates of pay to reflect the labour intensive and physically demanding roles in meat processing.
As I stated, nine of every ten workers do not have access to a sick pay scheme. This is a significant contributory factor in the spread of Covid-19 within the workplace. Why have we not ensured that workers suffer no loss of earnings should they have to isolate? The pandemic unemployment payment is not an appropriate substitute for the necessary legislative imposition of a sick pay scheme but it could be part of it in the short term where employers make up the net pay balance.
In comparison with our EU peer group, SIPTU's economic research, which can be provided, demonstrates that Irish meat plant operatives work an average of 4.7 weeks per year more than their EU counterparts and rank bottom of the list on actual hourly wages received. A feature of the continental system is the high level of employer social insurance, which ensures that most workers in our EU peer group receive acceptable illness benefit.
In following the recent commentary about Covid-19 outbreaks in the meat industry, there would seem to be a much higher proportion of asymptomatic cases than in other areas. I do not know how this is possible. Very recent commentary has emerged of workers being redeployed from one meat plant to another to finish production at weekends, causing so much concern about contagion that regular employees refused to go back to work until their safety concerns were addressed.
I have been reliably advised in recent days that upwards of 40 migrant meat plant workers are sharing rooms and accommodation in a certain town in Offaly. Should this prove to be the case and if we are truly serious about defeating Covid transmission within the meat industry, this hot bedding of workers has to stop. Surely this is not an Ireland that anyone would want to be proud of or indeed be associated with.
Where large Covid outbreaks have been established and production lines shut down, we cannot have a situation, as we believe occurred recently, wherein other workers in that same employment were tested and went back to work to deal with perishable product, and four days later they found out that they had tested positive for Covid. Where such large outbreaks occur, workers should be immediately removed from the workplace without loss of earnings until the workplace is deep cleaned, sanitised and inspected by the HSA, with workers only returning when they have tested negative for the virus. We can no longer compromise workers' safety through the unbridled drive for profits. We have already seen the tragic death of one meat plant worker from Covid-19 on the island of Ireland; we do not need to see another. Meat may be perishable, but workers must not be so.
The reimposed lockdown in counties Laois, Kildare and Offaly to deal with this crisis is now costing the midlands economy more than it would cost to ensure employers and State agencies are equipped to fulfil their obligations for a safe working environment.
We need legislation to ban subcontracting and bogus self-employment within the meat industry, similar to that announced in Germany on 20 May. So-called sole traders, working in Irish meat plants, paying tax in Poland, with employers avoiding PRSI contributions, workers missing out on leave and welfare benefits and the State being denuded of tax revenue must be stopped. Licensed direct employment is the way forward in this regard and an end to agency working in this industry is now necessary.
It is never too late to do the right thing and Tuesday's belated announcement by the Government for repeated weekly blanket testing of workers in meat plants, which we have been calling for for some time, within the lockdown areas is welcome, but we need to go further. We need rapid result turnaround times for this testing within 24 hours, as is the case in the UK. We also need a clear protocol as to how cases or suspected cases of Covid are isolated within the workplace and how co-workers within that work area or employment are treated.
The emergence of Covid-19 within the Irish meat processing industry has been extremely difficult for our members. They are all petrified of contracting the disease and they feel they must walk a tightrope every day. In many cases, they attend work even if they are unwell.
We have had many cheerleaders trumpeting the essential nature of meat processing at both Government and employer level. It is now time for these entities to put their money where their mouths are and recognise the need for workers within the industry to have decent pay, sick pay and pension provision put on a statutory footing, similar to that of a sectoral employment order. This will be the litmus test of those who are saying they are doing everything they can to eradicate Covid-19 in the Irish meat industry.
As Covid will prevail for possibly years to come and meat will always remain an essential foodstuff for our population, we have little choice but to shine a light like never before on this industry and address once and for all the socio-economic issues which have given rise to the meat industry being the perfect storm for the transmission and predicted resurgence of Covid-19 in Ireland.