A junior agriculture minister has heavily criticised unacceptable practices in the meat industry and said all workers in food plants need the "full protection of the State".
Green Party Senator Pippa Hackett said workers in food meat plants should be entitled to sick leave and the practice of "hot-bedding" should be ended amid controversy over work practices in processing facilities, where there have been a number of outbreaks of Covid-19 in recent weeks.
The HSE will this week roll out a testing regime similar to nursing homes, with serial testing of workers over the next four weeks, with the aim of turning results around within 24 hours. It follows dozens of outbreaks across the meat processing industry, associated with 1,400 cases.
Ms Hackett, who is Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity, strongly hit out at unacceptable practices in the industry, including the lack of sick pay for workers.
"I don't think this is acceptable and although the meat plants are operating within the legislation, this is a very poor signal to send out. These workers are essential frontline workers, a part of Irish society, and they deserve dignity, respect and the full protection of the State," Ms Hackett told the Sunday Independent.
She said the outbreak in meat plants was "concerning on many levels, not only from a public health perspective, but also the vulnerability of those workers in these plants".
She said that although hot-bedding - where more than one worker in accommodation shares a bed - was not widespread, the practice itself is unacceptable and "something that should not be allowed to continue.
"Apart from dignity and respect of the workers themselves, the risk of the spread of Covid must be very high," she said.
"We will have to listen to the public health advice, and concerns from unions and workers themselves, but I think many of these have now been highlighted, so it is up to Government and the relevant agencies and authorities to ensure proper measures are put in place.
"Hopefully any such measures will reshape the future of the sector going forward, with benefits across the board for public health and for workers' rights, which should benefit Irish society as a whole also."
Ms Hackett said she now expects unannounced inspections by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) will be "the norm going forward" after it emerged last week that the majority of inspections carried out by the HSA are pre-notified.
Siptu, which represents more than a third of the 15,000 workers in the industry, has claimed as many as 90pc of processing plant workers cannot receive sick pay.
Divisional organiser Greg Ennis, who warned of the potential for further outbreaks in May, said: "We need to bring in legislation, like that which was recently passed in Germany, wherein only directly employed labour can be used in meat processing and abattoirs."
A spokesman for Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said: "MII had a constructive meeting with Siptu on Monday, August 10. At the meeting, Siptu shared a document which we have referred on to our members as requested.
"We will discuss the matter further with Siptu at our next meeting."
Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary told the Sunday Independent: "Our priority at the moment is serial testing. We're going to consider all issues and look at an appropriate forum to do that, the engagement between the meat industry and Siptu is very important in terms of pay and conditions."
A HSE spokesperson said: "We are drafting a plan to test in meat plants.
"A letter will shortly go to them to commence the process of data collection in advance of testing.
"A schedule will then be built and testing starting during the week commencing 17 August. This is a large and complex logistical exercise, but similar to those we run for nursing homes."