Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements


11:45 pm

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)

I have three questions, two for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed and one for the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, which I would like to be answered in that order.

When we last met here three weeks ago, I raised three issues, namely, workers rights, the vulnerability of our food supply chains and the need for transformative change in the sector in advance of future crises similar to Covid-19. I did not get clear answers so I am back again, unfortunately, discussing the same issues and asking almost exactly the same questions.

I am very new to politics. I grew up on a dairy farm in West Cork which, like many, became unviable when milk quotas were lifted. Now we are operating, albeit at a loss, in beef production. In my lifetime, I have seen transformative change in Irish agriculture and the consequences for farmers and our wider communities. I went on to study it and the more I learned and experienced, the more questions I had. Why, for example, is the agrifood sector constantly moving in an unsustainable direction that continues to erode farmers’ and other workers’ rights, weakens our food security and causes irreparable damage to the land? Who benefits? It does not take long to realise that how our land is managed and who gains from it is the result of political choices. Change can only come about when there is the political will to do so and this inspired me to engage in politics. Having made it to this Chamber, with all that entails, I am sure the Minister can empathise with how frustrating it is for me to now realise how difficult it seems to be to get a straight answer in here. I am asking the Minister, respectfully, to answer my questions this time.

First, does he agree that the power of the beef processing sector needs to be tackled? If so, what is he doing about it? The power of the beef lobby is often mentioned in this Chamber, with references made to cartel-like practices, the ever-decreasing prices for farmers and the disgraceful treatment of workers. Too often discussion regarding clusters in meat processing plants have focused on where some workers are from, a divisive us-and-them narrative. If there is an us-versus-them, the "us" is farmers, consumers, butchers, as well as Irish and migrant workers while the "them" is an industry dominated by a small number of players who reap most of the rewards. It is no coincidence that these clusters are in the mega-industrialised segment of the agrifood sector. The global industrialisation of farming has contributed to the creation of viruses and the spread of this pandemic. There are no clusters in small abattoirs, in butcher shops, or on small farms, whereas intensive farming relies on big meat processing plants. I note that the Minister has acknowledged the current problem in beef plants but will he also acknowledge the bigger, more fundamental problems that have led to this one?

My second question is as follows: does the Minister acknowledge how unsustainable our current practices are and what does he plan to do about it?

Ensuring a food system is secure and safe involves more than ensuring stock is on shelves. It is about reducing our total reliance on imports and shortening supply chains. The sector should prioritise local economies, connecting producers and consumers, and protecting farmers and workers. Only then can Irish people be confident that we have an ethical, safe food system.

My next point is addressed to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. It is disappointing that it has taken this crisis and the health of workers for the conditions in meat processing factories to be seriously looked at. The clusters of Covid-19 in meat plants have occurred despite warnings from workers and representative organisations. These clusters were avoidable, as they were in direct provision centres, if warnings had been heeded.

At the best of times, workers in this sector get low wages for physically demanding work and no proper sick pay. Now, today, when the Minister and I are recommended to only spend two hours, socially distanced, in this large room, staff in meat plants certainly are not doing that. They are working nearly on top of each other, in dangerous conditions, for long shifts. In addition, there are a disproportionate number of migrants working in this industry, with non-EU workers’ residency depending on their job. They have limited access to social welfare and some 10% have very little or no English, and they are not being heard. These workers are incredibly vulnerable and we are obliged to ask if this vulnerability contributed to the clusters of Covid-19. Why were calls for greater regulation and restrictions ignored? Where were health inspectors and why were resources not available in plain English and other languages?

The State and big business might be happy for this situation to continue but I and many of my constituents are not. We want to know that our food is produced in a safe, ethical and fair way. Workers deserve more protection, farmers deserve to be paid properly and the consumer deserves greater transparency. Does the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, agree that workers' rights should be protected in meat processing plants? If so, what is she doing about it?


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