Workers in meat processing are being put at risk by employers who are failing to do all they can to protect their employees.
Earlier this week, UniteLive highlighted Unite’s deep concerns over a growing number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in meat processing facilities in Northern Ireland in particular. The union’s biggest fears came to pass after it was reported that a worker at a Moy Park site in Northern Ireland died after contracting coronavirus.
The worker was named as Luciana Viviana da Silva, originally from East Timor, who died in her home at the age of 58 after contracting Covid-19.
Following the news of the da Silva’s death, Unite urged poultry giant Moy Park to shut the Dungannon site while all workers are tested and they get their results back, but the company has now declined to test its workers, despite their workers being considered essential and therefore would be eligible for testing.
Unite regional officer Sean McKeever slammed Moy Park and highlighted how an enormously profitable company should be doing all it can to protect its workers.
“Moy Park is Northern Ireland’s largest private sector business – a hugely successful company – but that success has been built on the backs of their workforce,” he said. “Its latest accounts show that sales topped £1.6 billion – an increase of four percent on the previous year – while operating profits were up to £72 million. The top paid Director received more than £2.6 million in terms of pay and pension contributions.”
“These figures confirm that Moy Park doesn’t need to cut corners,” he added. “With Bombardier, the second biggest company in Northern Ireland, facilitating testing of workers and their family members when requested, employees at Moy Park are asking why they are being treated as second-class by their employer.”
McKeever explained why working in meat processing facilities in particular is so dangerous at this time during the pandemic.
“Meatpacking workers stand for hours in close proximity in cold conditions – this is an implicitly high-risk sector – it is no accident that we’ve seen huge outbreaks across the USA, Brazil and Canada already,” he said.
Moy Park responded publicly outlining all the steps it has taken to make their sites safe, but McKeever said that such a profitable company should be doing everything it can – including testing.
“Employers have a duty to keep their employees safe which is enshrined in law,” he said. “In the face of total and continued inaction by Stormont Ministers on this crisis in the meatpacking sector, workers will have to organise to defend themselves.
“The refusal of bosses to provide workforce testing to their workforce is a simply not good enough,” he added. “This cannot be about cost – you cannot put a price on workers’ health and well-being. The bosses had better recognise that when workers get organised, the real power in meatpacking is on the shop-floor – health must be put before profit.”
Unite national officer Bev Clarkson pointed out that while Moy Park may have beefed up its health and safety measures in the last few weeks, they have only come around until relatively recently.
“We have confirmed that the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive conducted an unannounced safety inspection at Moy Park and they reported that the firm has taken sound health and safety measures.
“But it must be said that the company took action very late in the game – at the beginning of the crisis they did absolutely nothing to protect their workers, which prompted our members to spontaneously walk out. It was only after pressure from Unite that Moy Park started instituting Covid-19 health and safety measures.
“Regardless of the measures they are taking now, it could very well be that their late action has put workers at risk. Now they must do all they can to control infection on sites and keep workers safe. That includes testing as a matter of urgency. It is a call we are making across the board – any sites with confirmed cases of Covid-19 must carry out testing for its workforce.”
Clarkson highlighted that in the wider meat processing sector, much more must be done to keep workers safe.
“Our members are extremely concerned and we are aware members have been put at risk previously,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme.
“When this pandemic first started and we first went into lockdown a lot of the meat companies were very slow off the mark and just really felt that they didn’t need to do anything — that they could just continue to operate as they have been operating because the guidelines from the government were not clear.
“The guidelines from the government was to adhere to the 2m social distancing ‘wherever possible’ and a lot of employers were saying ‘well we can’t – it’s just not possible’,” she added.
While Clarkson conceded that many meat processing companies like Moy Park have now taken action on health and safety issues after pressure from Unite, including putting in screens and providing workers with PPE such as visors and face masks, sites must be continuously monitored.
“Because of the latest announcement from the government [easing the lockdown] we just don’t want employers to start laxing again on what they have to do and result in a second peak – which potentially could close these factories down,” she noted. “And that isn’t want we want – we want them to stay open and provide a living for our members.”