Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements

 

10:50 pm

Claire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)

I contacted the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 4 May, having been contacted by a constituent who was worried sick for her elderly parents who lived near a meat processing plant, given rumours at that time of positive cases in the plant. The Minister's response was to take a total hands-off approach. He stated in his correspondence to me, and has stated a number of times since, that it is a matter for meat plant businesses to ensure that necessary protection protocols are in place. We all know Covid-19 is a public health matter, but there is also a responsibility for the Minister in all this. We know that outbreaks in meat processing plants impact not only the individual employee but also his or her family and entire communities. It is not good enough to leave factories to put protocols in place, hope for the best and leave it at that. The Minister might have faith in a lot of these meat processing plants, but I do not think that faith is shared by many other people.

The Minister also mentioned in his correspondence to me the 250 veterinary and technical staff that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine deploys in meat processing plants. We know their role up to now has been around animal welfare, health and safety of food, hygiene and all of that. Have these Department employees had their responsibilities extended to supervise the health and safety of employees? Is that ongoing now? It is a "yes" or "no" question.

According to the chief executive of the Health and Safety Authority, we learned this week in the committee, and we now know, that no inspections of meat processing plants took place despite complaints. It seems highly strange to me that in all this time the HSA has been inspecting premises but it has not been inspecting meat processing plants despite complaints. I hope the Minister will agree that this is highly concerning. I know of a factory where positive cases were identified in April. The HSA wrote to all staff at the time. Would that not have been a time for the HSA to go into that plant to check the protocols and see what was in place for the protection of those employees?

I welcome the fact that inspections have now begun. I hope that the vast majority of inspections carried out by the HSA are unannounced. I hope that where protocols are seen to be absent the plant is revisited some days later. Again, the majority of these inspections should be unannounced.

Is the Minister aware of a letter issued to all factory employees across the country by one meat processing plant? Part of this letter states that it had been brought to the attention of the plant "by local Gardai that a small number of our employees are not adhering to social distancing outside of the workplace and have not been properly self isolating when required to do so in accordance with the guidelines." The letter continues:

We have also heard that some employees have been arranging large parties at weekends, which is not allowed and unacceptable.

That to me reads of an employer passing the buck to employees. It reads to me of an employer shifting the blame and it is no way to treat workers. I hope that the Minister will see it the same way.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine should acknowledge in the House that no plan was put in place in time for meat processing plants and that this has had devastating consequences for families, employees and communities. Recent weeks have shown that the disregard factories have shown to farmers in this country for a long time is in some cases also shown to employees. I think when all this passes there is work to do when it comes to employees' rights in these meat processing factories.

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