Thursday, 21 May 2020
Covid-19 (Taoiseach): Statements
In the Watergrass Hill area, which is on the border of my constituency, there is a Kepak meat plant. Kepak has 650 workers there, of whom more than 120 tested positive for Covid-19 last week. All over the world, meat plants are hot spots for Covid. In the United States, where President Trump has come in for particularly sharp criticism, more than 10,000 meat workers have been affected and at least 30 have died. That international criticism has been justified, but the USA has 100 times the number of meat plants that we have. Ireland, with 860 infected workers, has an infection rate per meat plant more than eight times greater than that of the disgraced USA.
On Friday morning last, in a riveting piece of radio, RTÉ's Brian O'Connell reported on meat workers working shoulder to shoulder and on top of one another. He interviewed two immigrant meat workers who told the nation that workers at their plant with high temperatures had been sent home but were told to come in the next day. No PPE had been distributed until very recently. The workers did the interviews with voice-overs for fear of losing jobs and accommodation. Gerry McCormack of SIPTU has said this problem in the industry is more generalised. He has spoken of some employers as having "ignored completely the recommendations from the HSE on how to do physical distancing".
Here is an industry with a low-paid, largely immigrant workforce that has been run like a dictatorship, with workers treated little better than modern-day slaves. In Northern Ireland, meat workers were forced to walk off the job at Linden Foods, Moy Park, APB and the Foyle Food Group just to secure improved health and safety. Here is an industry that needs to be run under workers' control. Workers' control of the meat industry would give far greater priority to workers' health, safety and lives. Can anyone seriously doubt that infection rates would be lower, possibly far lower, in the meat industry if it were to operate under workers' control?
The virus has been ripping through meat plants for at least a month. When was the first inspection of a meat plant carried out in this crisis by an officer of the Health and Safety Authority?
We know that zero inspections had been done by last Wednesday. The HSA spokeswoman seemed to imply at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that the first inspection may only have been done last Monday. Why was there such a shocking delay? Did the Government fear treading on the toes of the meat plant bosses, even as their workers suffered? What alternative explanation can the Taoiseach provide?
Does the Taoiseach agree that when a cluster is found in a meat plant, not only must every worker and his or her family be tested but work must stop at that plant until such time as the tests are complete? Does he also agree that any worker forced to take time off for this reason should receive full pay in the interim?