Thursday, 21 May 2020
Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements
Bríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
I will ask questions only of the Minister, Deputy Creed, because in the past I have found it a fruitless exercise to question the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I want to address what I believe is the situation. I believe the Minister has failed utterly to take seriously any warnings from Deputies in the House, to investigate them or to enforce basic health and safety regulations in the largest meat processors in the State. The figures are quite breathtaking. There are 16 clusters and this week, Dr. Colm Henry told us that 860 workers are infected. The repeated attempt to state that 55% to 60% of them have returned to work is an attempt to minimise this stark statistic.
On 30 April, the Minister was asked in the House about the situation in certain meat plants. At the time he knew there were six clusters and that hundreds of workers were infected but he spent most of his time speaking about the supports and the capital and investment grants the Government was making available to the wider industry. His key contribution was to state, "Our primary concern was to make sure that as we approach peak production, we keep processing capacity functioning". To Deputy Stanley, the Minister said he did not want the message to go out that the factories were letting in the virus and letting it spread. To Deputy Paul Murphy, he said that it was certainly not the case, on the basis of information available to him, that unsafe practices were taking place. The Minister also said this is a pandemic and people get infected by one source or another. Despite examples from Deputies he continued to defend these plants. The Minister also stated there was nothing to suggest that the allegation that there were risks because of unsafe practices was actually true. He stated it was a smear tactic dressed up as a concern, which was regrettable. Today he has reiterated that the protection of public health has to be our overriding concern. The Minister's chief concern then and now is to defend the owners of the major industries, such as the likes of Larry Goodman with his €170 million profits per annum, Dawn Meats and Liffey Meats. All of the big beef processors are being defended in disguise in here.
On 6 May, the study from the US showed that wherever there are clusters in meat plants, within a 15-mile radius the community is twice as badly affected as other areas of the country. The HSE needs to investigate that study, apply it to where meat plants are located in this country and check out what is happening with the communities around them. On 8 May, we found that there are 566 cases of Covid in ten clusters in meat processing facilities. Dr. Ronan Glynn, deputy chief medical officer, had told us that of all workplace clusters, the meat industry is by far the worst. We are three weeks on from the Minister's defence of the meat factory owners, when he more or less said that if people get infected one way or the other, it is nobody's fault, not his, not that of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, nor that of the Minister, Deputy Harris. Perhaps it is their own fault, as was suggested in respect of another cohort of unfortunates who were infected in clusters in direct provision. Perhaps it is their own fault because they were in unsafe work practices. I want the Minister to tell us today whether his primary concern is for the health of the workers and the safety of the community. Will he now apologise for misleading this House three weeks ago and will he apologise to those 800-plus workers who have suffered because all the regulatory bodies in this country have failed them? The priority was really on the needs of the big beef barons to export the meat they were producing. I call on the Minister now to do what the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is calling for and close those meat plants where clusters exist, to allow for deep cleaning and realignment in those factories, and to allow for safe practices to exist. If the HSA will not tell the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, what meat plants it has examined, perhaps it will tell the Minister, Deputy Creed.