Institutional racism led to data breach over migrant workers, rights chief says

Levels of “institutional racism and discrimination” in the health service led to a serious data breach when employers were told of coronavirus test results before meat factory workers who were tested, it has been claimed.

Edel McGinley, director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), described the practice as a “gross and serious breach of confidentiality”.

She told the Special Oireachtas Covid-19 committee that comments made by a senior health official about the scandal were “deeply worrying”.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(PA Graphics)</figcaption>
(PA Graphics)

In May, it was revealed that workers’ test results were being shared first with employers before workers themselves.

The incidents relate to widespread screening of meat factory workers, with public health officials alerting employers in the first instance in an effort to trigger prompt infection control steps.

When the practice was made public, the HSE said it would end.

However, Ms McGinley said it remains “unclear” if new guidelines or training have been issued for staff who are carrying out contact tracing in factories.

She added: “Deeply worrying are the revelations made by Director of Public Health in the mid-west, Dr Mai Mannix, while speaking at a HSE briefing on June 5.

“Her comments reveal a level of institutional racism and discrimination that led to this very serious data breach.”

Dr Mannix had been speaking about the length of time it took to contact people who do not speak English.

This undermines trust in the HSE, leaving workers and their families exposed, and without accessible information to isolate if necessary.

She said at the time: “So you’re potentially looking at five people in my department to take four hours to go through to contact each of these types of people.”

Ms McGinley claimed these comments discriminate people from a migrant background and are in breach of their public sector duty.

“This undermines trust in the HSE, leaving workers and their families exposed, and without accessible information to isolate if necessary,” she added.

Irish meat factories have been hit with clusters of cases, with more than 800 workers infected with the virus so far.

Research carried out by MRCI reveal that almost half of workers feel that their employers do not enforce Covid-19 safety measures, while 48% said there are still not sufficient measures in place.

The report also found that in workplaces with clusters, just 30% of workers felt their employers took effective action to keep them safe, with 67% claiming their employer had not done enough to prioritise their safety.

Ms McGinley called for a taskforce to be set up to look at the terms and conditions for workers.

She also raised issues around work permits, describing how difficult it is for workers to assert their rights.

“Workers report to us that they cannot choose not to come to work if ill, or seek improved conditions for fear of losing their employment permit and immigration status,” Ms McGinley added.

Sinn Fein’s Matt Cathy queried whether any staff returned to  work before they received their Covid-19 test results.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Brid McKeown (Oireachtas TV/PA)</figcaption>
Brid McKeown (Oireachtas TV/PA)

Brid McKeown, workplace rights coordinator at MRCI, said some staff only received their results when they approached their employer.

“We also have anecdotal evidence that some felt their employers were withholding positive results from workers who were not displaying symptoms to keep up production efforts,” she told the committee.

Labour TD Duncan Smith said the meat processing factories are the “largest systemic work exploitation” in the State.

He added: “Were there any incidents where the State provided protective equipment in meat plants? It is my view that, not only have many employers let these workers down, but the State have abandoned the workers in these plants.”

Ms McKeown said: “Of the people we spoke to, 15% didn’t have contracts, 9% weren’t sure if they had contracts and a further 13% said their contracts didn’t reflect their terms and conditions.

“We have heard recent reports that over the last two years, workers are being given new contracts on the factory floor and told to sign them. The contracts are in English and they haven’t been translated or explained and are intimated when there is resistance to sign contracts.

“Migrant workers are extremely poorly treated, there is a day-to-day lack of respect and value bestowed and a huge lack of trust from workers.”

The main nationalities are Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Latvian, Moldovan, Slovakian, Brazilian, South African, Botswanan and Filipino.

Workers also reported to the MRCI that EU and non-EU migrant workers are over-represented on the factory floors, meaning they are on lower paid jobs.

Meanwhile, Ireland is beginning to reimport Covid-19 cases through international travel, a senior health adviser has warned.

After the reproductive rate of Covid-19 in Ireland increased to one, Professor Philip Nolan, chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (NPHET) modelling group, said a travel-related introduction of the disease is “problematic”.

The Department of Health announced on Thursday that a further six people diagnosed with Covid-19 in Ireland have died.

It brings the total number of deaths linked to the virus to 1,743.

A further 23 cases of the virus have also been confirmed, bringing the overall number to 25,565.

It emerged that of the 23 new cases, 15 were “directly or indirectly” related to travel.

Prof Nolan told RTE Morning Ireland: “NPHET has recommended an escalation of a set measures to ensure that we close down on that.

“Our current tracking and tracing mechanism is how to track down those cases and isolate them at an early stage.

“We’re also beginning to see people being more sociable, perhaps people being forgetful about the risks of the viral transmission, and we’re seeing clusters of cases emerging in very small numbers of circumstances.

“These circumstances are those we advise against – gatherings of large numbers of people, particularly indoors, are the ideal opportunity for this fire to spread.”

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