Thursday, 21 May 2020
Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants: Statements
Michael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
I have heard much criticism in the media and this evening of the meat industry's handling of Covid-19. Much of this criticism is merited, and some of the criticism is exaggerated. I find it hard to believe, as the Minister just said, that any meat industry owner or management would willingly be negligent to the extent that they would endanger their workforce. The industry is now operating under exceptional circumstances. Coping with the virus is a new and unexpected encounter for everyone. We should assess the failures and weaknesses in the industry in a calm and measured way so that lessons can be learned. We need to ensure that examples of effective best practice in protecting the health of workers are universally applied across all meat plants. As Members of this House we have a responsibility to be accurate, to be fair and to be realistic in our appraisal of the meat industry sector and its performance in dealing with Covid-19.
I cannot speak with authority on what is happening in plants across the country but I can speak with knowledge on events at Rosderra Meats in Roscrea, which is in my constituency. I was contacted by a number of workers and by my local councillor, Shane Lee, bringing to my attention the incidents of Covid-19 within the Rosderra factory and the local community in Roscrea.
From the outset, our primary objective was to protect the health and welfare of the workforce.
I worked closely with Councillor Lee to highlight to management the legitimate fears and concerns of the workers and also of the community and residents of Roscrea. After discussions with senior management at the plant to ascertain the extent of the problem, I contacted the directors of the company. I was advised that everything possible was being done to contain and control the spread of the virus. This included a wide range of precautionary measures that were put in place in accordance with the guidelines.
The company agreed to my suggestion to call in the HSE and conduct blanket testing. This was conducted at the weekend of 24 and 25 April. Six days later the laboratory results confirmed an unacceptable level of Covid infection in the workplace. I was aware from my discussions with the directors that they were disturbed at the outcome. They were determined to stop the spread of the virus and were deeply concerned that the virus was having a detrimental impact on the health of their workers. Its impact was sapping energy and wreaking havoc with a hitherto busy and successful production line. The company wanted to halt the virus in its tracks and was prepared to do whatever it took to bring it under control. It sought professional advice, followed best practice and implemented every recommendation. The HSE later confirmed that its personnel received total co-operation, had unrestricted access to the factory and was continuously monitoring the situation.
On being advised of the identity of positive cases, those employees, together with close contacts, were put into immediate HSE-protocol self-isolation, away from the plant in their own accommodation. Production was scaled back significantly in line with available staff. Staff have since returned to work on a gradual basis and following the HSE protocol on self-isolation, Rosderra is almost back to full operational capacity.
The safety and welfare of employees is of the utmost importance to this and other companies and they continue to be extremely vigilant with their protective measures for infection control including: providing a constant supply of PPE, that is, visors, masks and goggles; extending and reorganising canteens to facilitate adequate social distancing at break-times; having extended washing facilities in changing rooms; increasing the number of hand-sanitising stations, which were already at a high level as befitting a food production plant; and reconfiguring its operations to facilitate social distancing or partitioning workspaces where appropriate. All employees have been informed not to come to work if feeling ill or experiencing Covid symptoms, and the company has trained and briefed all staff in their relevant languages on Covid-19-related issues, including Covid-19-related financial support measures.
The vast majority of workers understand the serious nature of the situation and the absolute necessity to comply with every precautionary measure. A minority, through carelessness or naivety, jeopardise their fellow workers and families by non-conforming actions. These people need to be educated about the fact that this virus is at its best dangerous and at its worst deadly.
We should be mindful of the fact that the company employs 440 people at its Roscrea plant. It is vital to the local economy and makes a huge financial contribution to a town struggling for survival. As the company is operating to international best standards, it has valuable export contracts to China, Japan, the USA, Canada and Australia. It is, therefore, very important for the company to protect its hard-earned international reputation. Conscious of these factors, I deliberately did not make any public comment or resort to big-bang publicity. I decided the best approach in the workers' interest was to work with management to ensure the company got the full support of the State agencies in its efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
The current predicament of the workforce or future job security is not well served by blame games.
Condemnation serves no useful purpose and does nothing to improve the position of the workforce. This is not a time to set management and workers against each other. This is a time to work together to resist the common enemy, Covid-19. I am on the side of keeping workers safe while also keeping their jobs safe. There will be a future after Covid-19. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that Rosderra Meats is part of that future. In Tipperary we are also fortunate to have the contribution to our economy of other meat plants in Roscrea, Nenagh and Cahir and we value and appreciate them.
I have made submissions to the Minister on lifting the restrictions on the greyhound racing sector. This is a particularly important business and pastime in rural Ireland. All of the protocols and procedures are in place for a safe reopening of our greyhound racing tracks. I am satisfied that the Minister and his officials understand the necessity to reopen greyhound activities as soon as possible. I ask that he expedite this decision in consultation with NPHET. I would like to have the Minister's views on this matter first.