'Nobody cares' - workers laid off by meat row face poverty as they wait for dole payments

Struggle: Jurijs Belousovs works in the abattoir at Slaney Foods, Bunclody, Co Wexford, but has now been laid off. Photo: Mary Browne
Struggle: Jurijs Belousovs works in the abattoir at Slaney Foods, Bunclody, Co Wexford, but has now been laid off. Photo: Mary Browne

Anne-Marie Walsh

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his ministers are wrapped up in the potential fallout from Brexit on thousands of jobs in the agri-food industry.

But the meat sector is already in the grip of a crisis caused by farmers' blockades of factories in a battle for better prices, leaving thousands of low-paid employees out of work.

Nobody seems to know exactly how many have been laid off from a total processing workforce of around 10,000.

Siptu alone estimates around 3,000 of its members are affected. And it is unclear how many are at risk of destitution over the impasse concerning beef prices because they may not have enough contributions to qualify for the dole.

Siptu industrial organiser for agri-food and drinks, Terry Bryan, said a separate desk had been set up with the sign "meat factory inquiries' at the Waterford city social welfare office to cope with the growing volume of claims.

He brought a couple of Brazilian workers to the office that copes with a district encompassing Dawn Meats, Slaney Foods and ABP earlier in the week. A nearby burger plant was one of the biggest in Europe, he said, and a major supplier for McDonald's.

"The Government needs to wake up and realise the extent of what's going on," he said.

"There are over 3,000 out of work now. We have a real crisis in the agri-food sector and other than [Agriculture Minister Michael] Creed, none of the other ministers have said anything about it. He is doing his best."

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Up to now, the factories had kept their staff going by giving them a day here and there training and cleaning as the work dried up, but the options are running out.

Latvian Jurijs Belousovs (41), a father-of-two who works in the abattoir at Slaney Foods in Bunclody, has been laid off three times since early August.

He said at first workers didn't know what was going on when the farmers turned up to protest, and they were largely ignored until they began blocking the roads to stop lorries and cattle going in.

It is a cosmopolitan workforce with staff from Latvia, and Brazil as well as Irish, Ukrainian and a few Chinese workers.

"Most of the workforce would be non-national," he said. "Most work in the boning halls and loading bay.

"Last week there was no work at all. This week we are not working and the supervisor said we may not be in again until next Wednesday."

Publicly, those workers who have spoken so far have been behind the farmers, but that is not always the case when they speak freely behind doors.

"Some people are mad with the farmers," Mr Belousovs said. "As long as they are not back to work, they have to find someone who is guilty. Some are OK with them, and some support them. It's mixed - I'd say it's 50/50.

"I support them although it's affecting us and I have a mortgage and we all have to pay our bills and everybody is struggling for money now.

"But that's if what they say is true and they have lost so much for the value of their cattle."

Mr Belousovs said waiting for social welfare had taken ages and he finally got €230 yesterday for last week, but his payment was not backdated to when he was first laid off: "It's back-to-school time and we spent a lot of money on that. If it's going on for one more month, 100pc I'll have an issue with my mortgage."

He described a bleak existence for colleagues who hadn't received any welfare payments yet and were waiting at home in Bunclody or Enniscorthy without the means to pay for a taxi, or even a bus.

Some had no English, he said, and had to pay rent and send money back to their families in Brazil.

"It is my feeling that nobody cares about that and we are more affected than farmers," he said.

The Employment Affairs and Social Protection Department gave some hope yesterday that all workers might get some assistance, but it is unclear if it will be enough to live on.

In a statement, it said all meat-processing workers affected by the dispute were advised to make a claim for a jobseeker's payment. It said arrangements had been made to take claims from individuals laid off as a result of the dispute and some had been received and were being processed.

"Each claim is decided in light of the facts of the situation and the circumstances of each individual," it said.

The department said supports under a supplementary welfare allowance scheme may also be available to those who do not qualify for a jobseeker's payment.

Those who do not have enough PRSI contributions, can apply for Jobseeker's Allowance but have to satisfy a residency and means test.

The department said in the absence of entitlement to jobseeker's allowance, supports may also be available under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

Irish Independent

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