Not all meat plants offer sick pay to workers, Covid-19 committee hears

The boss of Meat Industry Ireland (MII) has said not all meat processing plants offer sick pay to their workers despite the clusters of coronavirus cases found at such settings.

The outbreak of the virus at meat plants came under scrutiny at Friday’s Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response.

Since the pandemic began, there were 1,100 positive cases of coronavirus in meat plants but there are currently no active cases of the virus at plants and no new cases since the middle of June.

Fine Gael TD Colm Burke suggested workers may have been afraid during the crisis to come forward and say they are sick or suspect they have coronavirus for fear of losing pay.

MII senior director Cormac Healy told the committee: “In some companies there is sick pay and in others there is not – which is common across the economy.

“I would say it is a matter for the individuals, I would say some of them have it – some of them don’t. But equally, all of the Government measures in terms of the pandemic situation and payments and entitlements were all given in the languages that the workers required.”

We are a sector like other sectors that have moved to full employment, in that we have had to hire workers from other EU member states.

Pressed by committee chairman Independent TD Michael McNamara as to the number of plants that pay sick pay to workers, Mr Healy said: “Some of them have sick pay schemes and some don’t.”

Director of Meat Industry Ireland Joe Ryan said there are a high number of non-Irish workers in meat plants and insisted information about coronavirus in all languages was given to them.

Mr Ryan said 30% of the 15,000 strong workforce working in Ireland’s meat industry are Irish nationals while the remainder are migrants.

Mr Ryan said: “80% of our workforce are EU citizens with the balance then being people who are coming to work in the industry are on work permits and are here legitimately.

“The claim is being made here today that the industry is staffed solely by migrant labour but EU citizens who have been here in Ireland for 10 or 15 years and have sent their children to college here. Can they still be classed as migrants? I don’t think so.”

He said the number of people employed in the meat industry from outside Ireland is high due to full employment here.

“I don’t know that Ireland is unique in terms of the breakdown of our staff in our industry – we are a sector like other sectors that have moved to full employment, in that we have had to hire workers from other EU member states.”

The committee heard concerns about the way inspections at meat plants were carried out.

Mr Healy told the committee that all inspections were announced to factories in advance.

Fianna Fail TD Cormac Devlin said it was his view that unannounced inspections are preferable.

Mr Healy said: “My understanding is that the HSE site inspections are taken on the basis of advance notice – that was the decision of the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) – it was not under any circumstances because of pressure that we may have put on inspectors – which we did not.”

“It was a very clear situation – the HSA did not want and did not feel it appropriate to arrive at a site where there was a potential proven spread of the virus. They thought it was better to give plants advance notice rather than appear on their doorstep.

“There is a permanent presence of Department of Agriculture inspectors at all meat plants and they are there all year round.”

Chairman of MII Philip Carroll said his members started preparing protocols to deal with coronavirus before the first cases came to Ireland and no industry could have been prepared for the impact of the virus.

Mr Carroll defended the response of the industry to the pandemic: “As far as responsibility for outbreaks is concerned, we have made it clear that several weeks before a positive coronavirus case took place in Ireland, we had a set of protocol that applied to every single establishment.

“There is no perfect solution in any environment to preventing the spread of Covid-19. This came at us out of the blue as it came at the rest of the community out of the blue. We as a sector would not have had the expertise to deal with it.”