Profits before safety

Covid-19 latest: food production workers walk out over health and safety fears

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Two metres apart – this is the cornerstone of the government’s latest social distancing guidance that scientists have said will literally save lives.


While groups of people spotted at parks across the UK have been criticised for failing to adhere to the latest guidelines, there are other worrying violations of social distancing measures happening across the UK — in workplaces up and down the country.


In food production, one of a handful of key industries which will be allowed to continue operating throughout the UK-wide lockdown, some employers are failing to keep their workers safe, against explicit government guidelines.


Angry at companies so shamelessly putting profit before people, many workers have now had enough – and have taken matters into their hands with the support of their union Unite.


At poultry giant Moy Park’s Segoe site in Portadown, Northern Ireland, about a thousand workers spontaneously walked out on Wednesday (March 25) after management dismissed Unite’s attempts to secure commitments on safety.


These commitments were meant to ensure a minimum two metre social distancing between workers alongside other measures to enable infection control amid the coronavirus epidemic – but the proposals were rejected by bosses.


“Workers walked out for about an hour and have returned to work pending further discussions but we still have a number of issues that have yet to be resolved and we will not back down until they are resolved,” said Unite regional officer Sean McKeever. “The walkout is an entirely foreseeable outcome of both management greed and total inaction from Stormont.


“We need to see immediate movement from management to address the workers’ legitimate fears over coronavirus transmission – there cannot be any two-tier approach to health and safety in workplaces. Food production workers will not be treated as second-class.”


McKeever added that the walkout showed how being part of a union has empowered workers to take a stand.


Also in Northern Ireland, scores of workers at a meat processing plant in Lurgan refused to attend work on Wednesday (March 25) over safety concerns.


The workers at ABP meats are demanding that adequate social distancing of two metres be facilitated and enforced, and that other measures be adopted to keep workers as separated as possible. They also want deep-cleans conducted on work stations where workers have self-isolated with coronavirus symptoms.


Unite regional coordinating officer Susan Fitzgerald said that it was vital that the government enforce the Public Health England (PHE) guidelines which mandate social distancing.


“Government inaction is going to cost lives,” she said. “There must be a full lock-down of non-essential companies and where workers are deemed essential every possible measure should be taken and enforced to protect them – or else they shouldn’t be there.”


Fitzgerald said reports of food production companies not following social distancing guidelines are increasing.


“Across the front-line production sector – in particular in food – workers are reporting widespread management flouting of guidelines on social distancing and the lack of personal protection equipment,” she told the Irish News.


“In some cases when workers go into self-isolation with symptoms or even test positive for coronavirus, bosses are refusing to shut down their working area or conduct a deep-cleanse, and expect their colleagues to continue in work instead of self-isolating.


“Indeed, some workers have informed Unite that employers have written to their workers to tell them they cannot be held liable if they contract coronavirus at work.”


Unite national officer Bev Clarkson warned that Unite will leave no stone unturned in ensuring food workers’ health and safety are protected.


“Unite has received worrying reports of employers in food production not taking social distancing guidelines seriously,” she said. “We fully back workers who, as in the case of Moy Park and ABP Meats, walked out because their company’s profits were being put before workers’ safety. It is unacceptable that the safety concerns of these key workers, who are working flat out to maintain the UK’s food supply at a time of unprecedented crisis, are being ignored by their bosses. ”


“Unite continues to engage with employers across the sector to ensure that amid the epidemic they are ramping up safety and hygiene measures, while taking the utmost care to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” she added. “The rule that people stay two metres apart from each other at all times is not a mere suggestion. This is vital, scientifically-driven advice that can save lives. While our first port of call is to work with employers to negotiate health and safety commitments amid the pandemic, they should be warned that we will stop at nothing to defend and protect our members.


“We also call on the government to take action to enforce social distancing in workplaces, in the same way that police are cracking down on those ignoring social distancing in parks and in the wider community.  If businesses are so carelessly flouting government advice, swift action must be taken. “

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