Meat processors are moving to introduce increased Covid-19 testing and overhaul factory working practices as the Government comes under increasing pressure following the partial shutdown of Kildare, Offaly and Laois.
Factories are also understood to be looking at possible measures to reduce car pooling by workers in meat plants and at ways of limiting shared accommodation.
Following a meeting between SIPTU and Meat Industry Ireland (MII) today it was agreed that both bodies would engage with the HSE to agree testing protocols at processing plants.
In what were described as “frank and robust exchanges”, SIPTU claimed that MII had committed to considering a union charter outlining improved protections for meat factory workers in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, there is a growing sense of nervousness within the wider meat industry that some of the country’s main slaughter plants could face temporary closure due to Covid-19 during the crucial back-end of the year when cattle and sheep throughput are at their highest.
A continuous testing regime, similar to that introduced in nursing homes, will have to be adopted by food processors to limit further outbreaks, Minister of State Seán Fleming conceded.
Government ministers also admitted that more unannounced inspections by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) will be required to ensure compliance with stricter operating procedures.
Meat Industry Ireland (MII) confirmed that it “will engage fully” and had written to the HSE National Standing Oversight Committee (NSOC) seeking early engagement to facilitate the planning of testing at processing facilities.
“We appreciate that the specific approach and roll-out of testing at processing facilities will be worked through by the newly established HSE NSOC over the coming days,” the industry body said.
“Arrangements for testing and the speedy delivery of test results need to be worked out, so that the desired result of beating the virus is achieved, while also ensuring that the essential nature of the fresh food supply chain is maintained.”
MII said its members would welcome the introduction of unannounced HSA inspections.
“The nature of the many inspections to date at our members’ facilities has been both announced and unannounced, as has been confirmed by the HSA itself,” MII pointed out.
With meat factories now on high alert for further Covid-19 outbreaks, there are growing fears that some plants could face closure during the vital back-end of the year when the main flood of finished cattle are slaughtered by farmers.
Although Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the decision to close any plant would be based on local advice, Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats have already questioned how problems with Covid-19 were allowed escalate to a point that necessitated tighter social restrictions across three counties.
Both parties are seeking the immediate closure of meat plants that experience outbreaks of Covid-19, with workers retaining full pay while the facilities are shut.
A similar approach has been sought by the trade union SIPTU. Union official Greg Ennis said the close proximity of staff working on boning lines, as well as bottlenecks in canteens and toilets, provided a perfect environment for transmission of Covid-19.
Mr Ennis said the refusal of processors to provide sick-pay for a high proportion of production staff had contributed to the incidence of Covid-19 in the factories since workers could not afford to take time off to isolate.
SIPTU and MII officials met yesterday to discuss the crisis.
Following a recent outbreak in meat factories in Germany, the authorities introduced compulsory weekly testing of workers, and have moved to ban the use of sub-contracted and agency employees.
ICSA president Edmond Phelan said the cheap food policy being promoted by supermarkets was being paid for by underpaid meat factory workers and farmers.
“Trade unions and farm representatives have common cause in trying to stop the exploitation of primary producers and of factory and supermarket workers,” he said.
ICMSA president Pat McCormack said: “The availability of high-quality food is obviously essential to us all, so this is an essential service all the way from the farm to the retail outlet — including these workers in the meat plants.
“We have to redouble our efforts to protect these essential workers.”
And IFA president Tim Cullinan said the priority must remain the health of everybody in the sector.
“We should continue to be guided by the public health authorities. They should be the ones to decide on the appropriate course of action where cases occur,” he said.