The meatpacking and the wider food processing sectors could quickly become another epicenter of coronavirus infection on par with care homes if coordinated action is not quickly taken by both employers and government.
The dangers faced by poultry and meat industry workers was thrown into sharp relief when it was revealed today (May 11) that a worker at a Moy Park site in Northern Ireland has died after contracting coronavirus.
Unite regional officer Sean McKeever extended his condolences to the worker’s friends and family and said that the fatality at the site in Dungannon follows the poultry giant’s failure to implement proper health and safety measures.
“For some time our union has been raising our concerns about the failure of management to ensure proper social distancing on production lines in Moy Park sites in Dungannon and Portadown,” he said. “Sadly, the Health and Safety Executive has yet to conduct a physical inspection on either site – the dreadful news that this female worker lost her life does not come as a huge surprise.
“Workers across the poultry and meat sectors are hugely concerned for their safety and the mid-Ulster area is now suffering a higher rate of infection than any other part of Northern Ireland,” he added.
McKeever went on to call for the Moy Park site to be immediately closed until all workers are tested and get back their results, with workers receiving full pay during the closure.
“The HSENI must conduct responsive and unannounced physical inspections of all meat processing sites, in particular both Moy Park plants, and we need clarity on the proper response to an outbreak within a workforce,” he said. “If Ministers don’t act to ensure such actions to protect workers, Unite will not sit back and watch while our members’ safety is compromised.”
The death of a worker at Moy Park follows news on Sunday (May 10) that there are a growing number of confirmed Covid-19 infections at a Linden Foods meat packing site, also in Northern Ireland.
“We have repeatedly sought effective infection control measures to secure the health and safety of our members and called on the HSE on many occasions to conduct a physical inspection,” said Unite senior organiser Davy Kettyles. “As yet they have totally failed to conduct any such inspection.”
“Now we understand from workers that at least seven Covid-19 cases have been confirmed at the Linden Foods site,” he added. “The workers are hugely concerned for their safety. We are also hearing of similar reports at a number of other sites.
“This is hugely concerning,” he added. “The absence of speedy action has led to a Covid-19 crisis in our care homes – now we are facing a similar outcome in the meatpacking sector. In the USA, more than ten thousand meat workers have tested positive for Covid-19 with at least 45 fatalities – the situation in Brazil is reportedly even worse but due to the absence of testing is unquantified. In the Republic, we have seen outbreak control teams sent to deal with clusters but the Northern Ireland Executive has done nothing.”
Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson said that the national picture of the food processing industry was a “broad church” and the union is working tirelessly to get meat and poultry companies to beef up their health and safety measures.
“On the issue of PPE, the sector as a whole was slow in moving but after pressure from Unite and other unions, they have largely got their act together,” she explained. “Now we are pushing sites to have specific procedures in place if any of their workers contracts Covid-19.
“I have asked several employers what their procedures are and so far only one has got back to us with an actual detailed policy. All the others have simply said they are ‘regularly reviewing their hygiene procedures’ which isn’t good enough.
“Far too many employers are flying by the seat of their pants and if they don’t change tack soon things will be catastrophic for workers in the sector,” Clarkson added. “We have seen what happens when the meat industry fails to put in proper health and safety measures in place – in America thousands of meatpackers have contracted the virus and there have already been at least 45 deaths.”
She noted that Unite will continue to push employers for risk assessments and to press for more details on confirmed Covid-19 cases on sites, which she said so far many employers are failing to disclose.
Clarkson said risk of exposure in the meat and poultry industry was especially high given the nature of the work and the difficulties of social distancing on the production line. While many companies in the sector have put measures in place and provided PPE, Clarkson added that the continued rise in infections in the sector mean that what is in place is simply not sufficient.
“All health and safety measures must be constantly revised and updated. There needs to be more testing and contact tracing. There also needs to be clear lines from government over the lockdown.
“Already even before Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday we have had employers in the sector telling us ‘it’s not certain that our workers caught the virus at work – they could have caught it while going to the shop at home’. This is an excuse to abdicate responsibility and will only get worse once the government further eases the lockdown.”
Speaking on BBC News this morning Unite general secretary Len McCluskey reiterated the need for stronger health and safety measures across the labour market before any wide scale return to work can happen. He warned that any worker, no matter who they are, has a legal right to refuse to go to work if they feel unsafe.
“Workers should be safe,” he told the BBC Today programme. “If they don’t feel safe, if their stewards and health and safety reps say it’s not safe, then they shouldn’t go to work.”
By Hajera Blagg