Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements

 

11:30 pm

Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)

I am going to speak, ask some questions and leave some time for the Ministers to answer. I start by echoing our support for the call SIPTU has made for a taskforce for the farm to fork process for the meat industry. We believe the return to work protocol document is strong. We have major concerns, however, about how it is going to be implemented across several sectors, one being the meat and food sector.

The HSA and Patricia King of ICTU were at the third session of the Covid-19 committee on Tuesday. It became clear that the number of inspectors available is totally inadequate, particularly in the regions. In the south west and north west, we have nowhere near enough inspectors to ensure this return to work protocol is hammered home and becomes an effective document. I say that because it is a worthy and impressive document when one holds it in one's hand. The proof is in the pudding, however, and that will be when we see its application in the workplace. We echo that call from SIPTU. Does the Minister agree with it and will he agree to establish immediately a task force for a farm to fork working group?

The second topic I want to focus on is migrant workers. Three weeks ago, we stood here and, among other things, we spoke about matters concerning the Keelings issue, as it was discussed at the time, including issues regarding how migrant workers are accommodated. We have had three weeks of increased cases of Covid-19 for workers in the meat industry. I thank the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland, MRCI, for providing me with some data for tonight's debate. According to SIPTU, 70% to 90% of workers in meat processing plants are migrant workers. If the Minister responds to any one of my questions, I ask him to respond to this one. Does he believe that what has evolved through the Covid-19 crisis regarding migrant workers has reached a threshold where we need a further inspection or investigative regime to examine their pay, conditions and rights? Does the Minister believe that a working group should be set up to examine the conditions of migrant workers in the agricultural sector? I ask that because I, like many Members at the start of this crisis, stood up here and praised the food industry for being able to deliver full shelves of food and even coping with the spike in purchasing and panic buying that took place at the start.

If I had known then what I know now, or been aware of the questions subsequently raised with me, I would have been somewhat more circumspect in my praise. We have lost confidence in how the meat industry is treating its workers. I wish to know, as I am sure Deputies Stanley, Bríd Smith and others also do, when we go into a store to buy meat, which processors are treating and paying their workers well, allowing them access to trade unions and advocacy groups and accommodating them well and safely. The Minister, Deputy Creed, stated that the processors are passing tests, but some are not passing them. My party and I believe they are treating their workers poorly.

The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, stated and the Minister, Deputy Creed, repeated that up to 60% or 70% of workers who were infected with coronavirus have returned to work. I have no confidence that this is true. These workers are tied to their employers for their permits and right to work. They fear that if they do not go back to work, they will have no work to go back to. There are similarities to the situation in direct provision, where there are concerns that people in direct provision are afraid to state that they have symptoms because they do not wish to be moved to another part of the country, away from whatever few support systems they may have, such as family, friends or a key worker in their current centre.

Some of the quotes attributed to workers are really frightening. One stated that if the disease was in animals, the factories would have to close, but when it affects workers, the factories can do what they want. Another stated that there was no social distancing and that workers had to go through areas where everyone was practically on top of each other, sneezing or coughing. Workers were not given masks or gloves. Rather, they had to buy their own. People were scared and it was unsafe. Staff were given one mask each per week and had to bring it home and wash it at the end of each day. That information provided by workers is enough to breach any threshold needed for a working group or inspection body to examine how migrant workers are treated in this industry. There have been too many questions across too many aspects of the work for that not to happen.

The Minister has a great opportunity to tackle this issue and to commit to doing so. I acknowledge that it will be a longer piece of work, but there is a perception, right or wrong, that the Minister is backing the few stakeholders who control this €2.4 billion or €2.5 billion industry rather than backing the workers.

These are vulnerable migrant workers who are open to exploitation. It is possible that some are not being exploited, but others may be suffering exploitation. We need to find out. I am of the view that they are being exploited. The Minister has an opportunity to back them by setting up a working group with officials from his Department, representatives of the trade union movement, advocacy groups and the HSE to begin work that will make Ireland the gold standard in the EU and perhaps the world in terms of how we treat migrant workers across all sectors of society. He could start with the meat and wider food industry. This is his opportunity. A cloud of shame has been cast over the industry during this crisis.

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