Thursday, 21 May 2020
Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements
I thank the Ministers for their statements. Meat processing facilities have become one of the worst hit workplaces in Ireland and around the world during Covid-19. The issue will only get worse now that their production has increased for the summer period. As already mentioned, figures from the national public health emergency team, NPHET, show that there are a total of 828 cases in the meat processing plants. Despite the figures and a number of complaints no inspections have been carried out by the Health and Safety Authority or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am aware that HSE outbreak control teams have been sent to each of the clusters in the meat processing plants. Can the Minister clarify the specific functions of this group, what plans are in place to prevent further spread of the virus and where within the plants the virus has been detected?
Representatives from migrant organisations and union representatives have raised the issue of migrant workers at meat processing plants. They have made it clear that migrants in these working conditions are being disproportionately impacted by the virus. Some migrant workers cannot adhere to social distancing guidance at home due often to cramped living arrangements with non-relatives as a result of their low wages. Complaints have been made to Migrant Rights Centre Ireland by workers in various meat processing facilities who feel their safety at work is being neglected. They also feel that the owners of these plants have higher priorities than worker safety. This raises a series of questions. What clarity can the Minister provide with respect to measures currently taking place within these plants to ensure social distancing regulations can be adhered to? Will he ensure the shutdown of plants for a two week period where Covid-19 has been detected to allow for deep cleaning and are there contingencies if closures become widespread? Crucially, in situations where plants are closed due to Covid-19 will the Minister ensure workers are paid for that period as many employment contracts are without sick pay schemes or similar benefits?
There have been reports of the Garda visiting meat processing plants to warn workers that breaches of social distancing guidelines and regulations will not be tolerated. Many of these workers are on low paid contracts resulting in them having to live in extremely cramped conditions with non-relatives and sometimes with colleagues or workers from other meat processing plants. This increases the risk of the virus spreading and makes adherence to the HSE guidelines impossible. Will the Minister comment on the issue of workers in the meat processing sector who have contracted the virus but are not in a position to self-isolate and adhere to social distance guidelines due to their living in cramped conditions with non-relatives?
Some of my colleagues will know that I was raised in the market town of Carrickmacross, where I fondly remember wandering around the cattle market on Fridays, looking curiously at the animals in their stalls and the hustle and bustle of the auction house. I also recall the relatively open nature of the slaughter of animals in the local butcher's shop. However, over the years, this sector has become overly industrialised. While there have been efforts made to improve animal welfare, there have been no similar efforts to improve the welfare of farmers and the industry's workforce. This is an industry that appears to treat its livestock better than it treats it people.
As matters stand, three companies control 65% of the traditional Irish beef processing market. The IFA and other farmer representative organisations have accused the industry of cartel-like behaviour. These companies have continued to amass huge profits and market share at the expense of our farmers. The organic beef market is in even worse shape, with only two processors, both of which are controlled by a single majority shareholder. It is clear that we need to shift our focus to create a circular economy that would allow for local and community-led production. Not only would this make the whole industry more sustainable, it would also allow our farmers more control of the market, shortening the supply chain as a result and increasing community income.
Ireland has recently enjoyed success in the creation of local businesses in similar areas. In recent decades, we have seen a huge increase in the number of micro breweries and distilleries, where before there was only a handful of big players. The State has given the needed support for that industry to prosper and generate sustainable local business. It is possible to buy locally sourced and slaughtered products in many parts of the country, and this creates sustainable jobs for our communities and high-quality food for consumers. We have also seen success with dairy farmers having access to co-operatives. The recent crisis has made it abundantly clear that changes like these, and more, need to be made to improve the working conditions in our beef industry. After consulting the independent research conducted by the IFA, I ask the Minister, if beef processing is so profitable, why have we not seen the emergence of successful beef farmer co-operatives? What is Teagasc doing to give beef farmers support and assistance to improve their efficiency, sustainability and profitability? Finally, considering that there is high transparency when it comes to cattle prices, I ask the Minister if data on the prices paid to the processors by the retailers can be made public.