Three food processing plants close amid outbreak fears

Employers have ‘duty’ to safeguard staff and public as more meat factory coronavirus outbreaks ‘suspected’

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Unite’s warning that food processing plants could turn into hotspots for Covid-19 transmission is coming to pass after three factories have shut amid suspected coronavirus outbreaks.

On Thursday (June 18) the 2 Sisters chicken processing plant in Anglesey said it would close for a fortnight as Public Health England (PHE) confirmed that there were 58 confirmed cases of coronavirus among staff on site, from a workforce of 560 people.

The closure comes just as it emerged today (June 19) that two other food processing plants – the Kober meat factory in Yorkshire that supplies bacon to Asda and Rowan Foods in Wrexham which makes food for supermarkets across the UK – have also closed amid outbreaks.

At the Rowans Food plant 38 cases have been confirmed and will shut for a week. It is unclear how many confirmed cases there are at the Kober plant, although 100 contacts of the workers have been traced. Bosses at the Kober plant have said they plan to reopen next week and had shut as a precautionary measure.

Commenting on the 2 Sisters outbreak, Unite regional officer Paddy McNaught said the union welcomed the closure to enable workers to self-isolate.

“It is a common sense approach to a very difficult situation,” he said. “We also welcome the commitment shown by the company to work with the relevant agencies to restrict the impact this outbreak on its workforce and wider community.

“Unite has also warned the company that it can’t ignore the financial impact such a decision will have on this group of low paid workers, who have strived to maintain the supply of chicken into the UK food chain throughout this pandemic,” he added. “We are calling upon 2 Sisters to enter into urgent discussions with us around protecting its workforce’s income at this time of crisis.”

Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture Bev Clarkson said that action must be taken now to curb a spike of cases in the sector.

 “Unite has warned time and again that coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories throughout the UK were likely,” she said. “The union has been in touch with the management of all three closed factories to insist that staff only return to work when it is safe to do so and when further outbreaks can be prevented. Unfortunately, we are also aware of suspected Covid-19 outbreaks at other sites across the UK. 

“While it is true that there are difficulties in maintaining staff distancing at many sites, this is no excuse – especially since similar outbreaks in the US and other countries have been widely reported on,” she added

“Employers must work with Unite to implement proper social distancing, cleaning and hygiene measures, as well as personal protective equipment provision where necessary. The health and safety of staff must always come first, but it is clear that in the meat processing industry there are still major issues to be overcome.

“It is also important to note that it is not just failing health and safety regimes contributing to the risk of outbreaks at meat processing factories,” Clarkson went on to say. “Far too many staff are living hand to mouth on low wages and poor employment contracts. Many employers are refusing to provide any financial support for those presenting with symptoms, so it is inevitable that some staff will simply hope they don’t have it and go into work. Employers have a duty to treat their staff better and stop the spread of the disease.”

The closure of three food processing sites in a matter of days comes as at least four food processing workers have died after contracting coronavirus last month – one at Moy Park in Northern Ireland and another three at a meat processing plant in Barnsley.

Thousands of Covid-19 cases in meat processing facilities in the US have been confirmed, with at least 66 meat workers in the US having died from the virus. Other coronavirus outbreaks at meat plants have been reported in France, Germany and Ireland.

By Hajera Blagg

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