Social distancing changes risk meat factory outbreaks

Downgrading of two-metre social distancing rule risks ‘more outbreaks’ for meat industry

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An expected downgrading to the two-metre social distancing rule risks causing ‘more outbreaks’ of coronavirus within the meat processing sector, Unite said today (Monday 22 June). 

Three meat processing plants have been closed in England and Wales in the last two weeks because of coronavirus outbreaks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce that the two-metre social distancing rule will be downgraded tomorrow. 

Unite called for ‘significant intervention’ by both the government and employers to prevent Covid-19 spreading at meat processing factories to accompany any downgrading of the social distancing measures, including better health and safety regimes and improvements to testing and tracing. 

The prevalence of coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories also makes it incumbent on ministers and employers to ensure that workers, who need to self-isolate, can be either paid under the job retention scheme (JRS) or have their rates of company sick pay increased, Unite said. 

The union said it was ‘inevitable’ that some low paid meat factory workers on ‘exploitative contracts’, who should be self-isolating, will continue working because they are only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 a week. 

Unite national officer Bev Clarkson said, “Many employers are barely taking notice of the two-metre social distancing rule as it is. Any downgrade for the meat industry in the current environment will simply give irresponsible bosses the excuse they need to do away with social distancing entirely. Put simply, it will risk more outbreaks at factories across the country.  

“Before any new measures are enacted, ministers and employers need to get to grips with the spate of outbreaks that have occurred under the present two metre rule. As well as more stringent health and safety regimes in factories, systems for testing and contact tracing within the industry need to be improved. 

“Just as important is the fact that far too many meat processing workers simply cannot afford to be ill and are being forced to disregard the rules to put food on the table. We are now in a situation where the poverty pay and exploitative contracts endemic to the sector are having a direct impact on public health. 

“Ministers and employers must step up to the plate and either provide sick pay that people can survive on or allow these workers to be furloughed.”

The call followed news that negotiations between 2 Sister Food Group (2SFG) and Unite that resulted in all of the 560 staff employed at their Llangefni site being paid in full for the two-week self-isolation period imposed following a Covid19 outbreak at the factory.

Peter Hughes, Unite Wales Regional Secretary Peter Hughes welcomed the decision.

He said, “The company has rightly recognised that their workforce should not suffer any financial detriment during this necessary process of quarantine. 

“Unite is committed to working very closely with 2 Sisters in order to put every measure in place to ensure the workplace is as safe as it can possibly be when the workforce return. No stone should be left unturned in the process of protecting our members and the wider community”. 

Meanwhile, Unite has slammed a threat by Foyle Food Group bosses to scrap one pound a day Covid payment for workers in Northern Ireland.  

Foyle Foods Omagh workforce suffered at least 35 confirmed Covid cases during first peak of pandemic.

Unite the union Regional Officer Gareth Scott said: “Foyle Meats workers in Omagh suffered probably the most significant cluster of Covid-19 infections in the meatpacking sector in Northern Ireland. Despite the secrecy around the scale of the outbreak, Unite is aware that at least 35 people in Foyle Food sites in Omagh tested positive for the virus. 

“While bosses have been safely cocooned away, day after day meatpackers at Foyle Foods in Omagh and Campsie have turned up to production lines. Although management pays lip-service to the role of employees in ‘ensuring a seamless supply of red meat’ – they are choosing to reward them with this callous slap in the face.

“Workers were informed of plans by Foyle Food Group to scrap the payment at the very same time bosses at ABP Group announced to their workers that they would end a £10 weekly Covid payment. These are wanton acts of naked corporate greed.”

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