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Hello and welcome to The Stand with Amy Dumphy.
The stand is proudly supported by Tesco at Tesco, our exclusive house for over 65 family carers and extremely medically vulnerable customers are every weekday, Monday to Friday, up to nine a.m.. Health care and emergency services have priority access at all other times now, more than ever, every little helps. Now, part of the covid 19 pandemic that is of particular concern at the moment is its presence in meat processing factories, particularly factories in Kildare and the Midlands, which have caused local lockdowns.
And meat processing is a huge part of the Irish economy, of course.
But the incidence of covid in these factories has led many people, including Nierop. This committee uncovered to have a look at the conditions in which workers are working and indeed the safety or lack of it in some of these plants. We're joined now by Mick Clifford, a special correspondent with the Irish Examiner, who's looked at this and written about it last week. And Mick, and the meat factories seem to be an obvious place given how closely people are working together.
And for such long periods, they seemed an obvious place to start looking or to be aware of yet. Six months into this and there was still a serious outbreak in Kildare and one or two elsewhere as well. That's very true.
The four factories so far have been identified as having significant clusters, all in that Midlands region of Khidir Lease and Ofili. And as you say, you know, again, this was something that could have been predicted and was predicted. In fact, now, as we know that the other big areas was nursing homes and some people could make a case that that was not significantly flagged prior to them occurring. And that's disputed. I know. But in the case of the meat factories, it was really, really flagged.
Many times it was done so in the DOL, particularly to Paul Murphy of Rice and others. It was done outside the door by some GP's, by medical experts. It was done internationally to the extent that the British Medical Journal there a few months back published a piece saying that meat factories would be the new frontline in covid-19. Yes. Despite all of that, we're left with the situation now where so far it's just been the Midlands. But it should be pointed out that we have meat plants all over the country, particularly in rural Ireland.
So where it goes from here is got to be monitored very closely with major questions arise in the first instance about the fact that it had been so well flagged and in the second instance as to what the response from the state bodies in particular were not to mind the employers themselves. Yes.
And I mean, the conditions these these workers work in are really difficult. In many cases. There's no union protection either. Can you tell us the structure?
Because in the piece you wrote, which I read, it struck me that a lot of workers, maybe the majority, a vast majority of our foreign foreigners, many of them are in direct provision and critically, they are recruited through agencies, which means they really have no affiliation to a trade union, for example, for protection and for the working conditions. That whole agency thing presents its own challenges to the revenue commissioners and to everyone else. Absolutely. And we can talk about the physical conditions there.
But very quickly, you point towards the employment conditions there in these meat factories. Traditionally, this was always a low paid area. It's hard, sometimes dirty work that has to be done. And in recent decades, as we saw Ireland nominally at least becoming a wealthy country and an influx of foreign labour, it seemed that the meat factories in particular targeted foreign labour to come in. Now, you can well ask why some people suggest it's because Irish people would not.
Do the job, and to be fair, there's some evidence that other sectors similarly to, for example, go back 30 years and we, the Irish, want us to do jobs in England and America that the natives wouldn't do there either. There is also a case to be made that this sort of work goes on behind closed doors. There is not a great oversight of this. Traditionally, I think we saw this going back as far as Larry Goodmans issues with credit export insurance back in the late 80s.
It's an area that the government has to a large extent turned a blind eye. And in that environment, you bring in a lot of migrant labor who some of the most basic level, some and it's not many of whom don't even have the language. They don't even have proper English, particularly the time to paint them, because that's so important. But also, they don't have proper representation and there is not the kind of spotlight on the area that there may be in other sectors within the agency just to deal with that.
Initially, the agency think is crucial to this extent. If you're employed by an agency and trade unions have suggested that agencies go abroad, they they they source labor, they get to to come in and that they are employed directly by the agency. In that scenario, you have this thing that is called bogus self employment, which basically amounts to an employee not having the terms and conditions that asseri sorry, somebody who's working in a place, not having the terms and conditions that a normal employee would and not contributing PRSA neither, crucially, is the employer contributing PRSA.
So you have a loss to the Exchequer in that regard. But I think to be fair, in terms of exploitation, far more importantly, you have a scenario whereby people are working without the normal rights that employees have to have long fought for conditions in the country.
And there is evidence to make that because these people have no security, they have no rights even to seek pay if they were to contract covid or any other infection. And they may not at the feel that may feel compelled to go on working.
Absolutely. I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a person like that. We all, on some level, those of us who have some stake in society have some obligations to society. But you take somebody, for instance, who doesn't have a stake, who is left outside the normal situations, who are, for instance, they're told are self-employed, are not getting proper workers rights, they're not getting sick or anything like that. That person is working in a foreign country, very likely, as we all know from this country, going back generations, sending money home just to basically keep people putting food on the table at home.
That person suspects they might have had the symptoms, of course, at 19. Does he or she? And it's generally male. Does he go to work and take a chance that he could spread it or could spread out into the community, etc.? Ah, does he stay at home and lose out on the day's pay? And in many instances, there are reports that people in that situation are very fearful of their employment if they don't go to work in certain situations.
And he has to factor that in as well. And very often people, understandably, on a human level will continue to go to work and try and suppress any symptoms and bring that danger with them. And I have to say that large extent is it's difficult to blame them for that. Yes.
And at directors committee hearings, the chair of the covid committee, Michael McNamara, remarked that the beef processing industry had, and I'm quoting a large degree of latitude for a long time. In other words, it was whatever you're doing, having yourself lads. And we did have a beef tribunal. And in the late 80s, it brought down a government, as you point out in your piece, and the beef tribunal cost forty five million. That brought down the government, uncovered fraud and tax evasion, but found no evidence that anyone was guilty.
Yeah, there was a couple of minor functionaries within the Goodman empire that were prosecuted. There was no evidence heard our adjudication at the tribunal that Larry Goodman, for instance, knew of any of these practices. But there was under the counter payments, there was work practices, all that came out. But as you said, to the greatest extent, nobody wanted a few people prosecuted in relation to it was a journalist not who exposed much of what was going on.
So that spoke to us. I mean. Remember, on that time, it just briefly goes back to Mr. Goodman, massive beef processor here, he had what was called export credit insurance, which basically meant the government underwrote any risk he had in selling British beef abroad. He was selling huge quantities to Iraq, which was involved in a war with Iran at the time. And then along came the Gulf War. And that threw the everything up in a heap.
The government has recalled mentioned that we don't have we don't have the dollars, sorry, being recalled in the summer recess. Now, at a time of pandemic developments, there are yes, we had Iraq to this cards to sort out Mr Goodmans company and the issues that meant for the country back in 1990. And despite all that, despite the discovery of particular practices, as you say, McNamara did point that out. He's actually here had a magic touch.
Does the meat industry have in Ireland that it is treated so differently from any other sector, was treated with kid gloves or as every other one in particular, the hospitality sector is treated with a jackboot by the state? No, continually interpretational, but there's no doubt about it. But even, for example, just to show you how it operates behind the closed door, even at that hearing, and we were referring back again to agency workers and the people who are left in that scenario, the two union reps estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of workers were employed indirectly, i.e. to agencies and everything that comes along with that.
They had a representative from the parliamentary party that in the survey and it's interesting, in a survey of members, only two percent were found to be employed by that. No, that's just incompatible because it is a huge gap. So, like, either that is an issue, as per the union said, ah, it's not an issue. And it will be interesting to see but how one might go about examining it other than in the survey. I mean, I might survey you about your your your habits or you might survey me and I might give an answer that's not particularly compliant with what's actually going on.
You have to wonder, was that what may have happened in this so-called survey? But it does highlight so much goes on behind closed doors and how it would appear that both elected and permanent governments have preferred to turn a blind eye to it going back decades.
Yeah, and there is news now into Prarie of a mushroom processing plant where I think there are a significant number of confirmed cases. Again, it is the practices, and one should say on the Laurie Goodman question, as you do in your piece, there is no incidence of covid-19 in any Larry Goodman meat processing plant. But what we do know is that it is the labour practices and the lack of, if you like, supervision by the state. I mean, the first thing we should have been doing would be looking at beef processing, meat processing in general, because in Germany there were instances, but they got on top of it very quickly.
The people employed, as you say, mostly foreigners and many of them living close together, and the people who are living in direct provision, certainly living with their families in very densely packed situations. That is a recipe for the kind of problem we're now seeing in the Midlands.
Absolutely. And I mean, just to give an example there. As we say, it was flagged the procedures were put in place and standards put in for personal protective equipment, that sort of thing, and it would seem are certainly the suggestion from the pretty few number of inspections that to a large extent those standards have been maintained. However, it's the other stuff. It's the stuff that within these factories, for example, the easing conditions, the living conditions, all of this where you have people packed in very close together.
And beyond that, as you mentioned, this is very low paid work you could have and it's in rural Ireland. So you're very little public transport. You have people crowded into whether it be cars or mini buses heading off here. You have at their homes huge numbers crowded into relatively cramped conditions. And all of this because basically we're talking about such a low paid industry, none of that was really examined. It's nearly as if everybody decided what was their value to look at and leave out the bigger picture.
For example, the Health and Safety Authority. It emerged under questioning from Sinn Fein's David Collinet that thirty nine inspections have been done since this pandemic began of meat plants, yet only nine of those were unannounced in cases. There was warning ahead to say we're underway. Now, the this is this is farcical, really.
And I have to say make it very Irish with market cowered before we come. But there should be some regulatory come back for that. Surely, if the regulator is announcing beforehand that we're coming to inspect on that today, tomorrow, whenever they have time to get their act together or to put a glass on things that really is wrong.
Absolutely. I mean, I know the executive from the Health and Safety Authority suggested that in some instances it may it may be a matter of hours and it may have been the evening before that notice was given. But you still have a scenario if you have an unannounced visit from a health inspector, that health inspector could walk in, for instance, in the situation when it's time that people are having their break, are having grub, and then they then observe what kind of scenario they are in, they arrive unannounced if there is full forewarning of them coming, OK, the general situation whereby you have personal protective equipment on everybody and that you can have that presented to the inspector, but that aren't the real picture of where the dangers might lie in there.
Similarly, if somebody if an inspector arrives when people are arriving for work, are leaving work in crowded cars or vans or whatever, you know what I mean? At least they can recognize there are some dangers here, but it's in keeping erm and with the general hands off attitude there appears to be towards the beef industry going back years.
Yeah. And I mean it also really smacks of the worst kind of Thatcherism and the crushing of unions and the creation of employment agencies to recruit workers. So you bypassed the trade union movement altogether. They don't have any representation. And in many industries and it isn't just the beef processing industries or the meat processing industries, union ization is not welcome. This is the new capitalism in action.
Yeah, that's no doubt. And even the most basic level, I'm speaking to someone in my own podcast about bogus self employment and expert Marea, and he made a point to saying, if you want to see where it's going on, follow the migrant labor, because that's the element of the workforce that is most exploited on the basis that they're not represented. They're sometimes afraid of what might happen if they speak up. And that's a huge thing. By the way, that idea of being blacklisted, if anybody speaks up.
The other thing that arises, Amanda, is and again, this is because of the lack of transparency, and that is how much profit is being made by the beef industry. No, they claim that the employers claim that, whereas they have huge turnover, they have very little profit margin out of that turnover. That's their claim. Yes. And this arose initially when it became an issue with farmers not getting what they regarded as a proper price for bringing beef to the factories.
No, they claimed that. But on the other hand, in many instances, the company structures behind this beef processing companies is very intricate. And if one was of a suspicious mind, one might believe that they were presented, they were organized that way in order to ensure that prying eyes couldn't look too closely at what the specific margins may be. One quick example there, and this is the report from the the Cole, the committee McCarthy to Disenchanted was was was pointing out to one of the who, I suppose he was being rhetorical in a way that he just wants to put some information out there on privilege, obviously.
And he did. But he said, I'm told that the and company operates on the following basis. The register company, Clear Channel and Company Unlimited is owned by a company called Carsia Unlimited, which is registered in the Isle of Man. Carsia Unlimited, in turn, is owned by Coralline Holdings and unlimited Irish registered company. Courtland Holdings is owned by Big Investments and unlimited Irish registered company, which in turn is owned by Chilkoot Investments there. But why is it necessary, for example, in that instance, to have the company and what the activity that goes on in the factories are effectively put through a ringer of companies until such point as one can really discern how much profit is garnered from specific turnover, and therefore whether or not in a situation where people are low employed in very tough conditions, that is in any way whatsoever justified, even on the basis of them trying to turn what you might call an honest book.
Yes. And the point, I suppose, being that this is cowboy territory. If it's not regulated, it's the potential for the kind of fraud and tax evasion that was uncovered at the beef tribunal exists. If you have a structure like Mack-Cali presented last week to Europe, this covered committee. Exactly.
And another example I referred to the piece, you mentioned a number of Goodman companies. They were registered in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein and their profits of one hundred and seventy million in two thousand and eighteen. Nobody has to point out, first of all, that not all those companies, and it's unclear how many, if any, were specific in terms of its beef interests, but that that is his main cost, so to speak. But the interesting thing about that is that most of the profit was garnered by a number of companies registered in Luxembourg, which has no employees.
So what does that tell you? That tells you that legally and nobody is suggesting otherwise, Mr. Goodman can organise his affairs such that the one hundred and seventy million in-process comes from a company with so-called no employees in a far away country. That's a long way from the factories, Tarrant County or the Midlands or wherever they may be. Yes.
And that extends out if there's a mushroom company, a mushroom processing company now in Tipperary, where there is another outbreak, this extends and this is a lack of regulation, no compliance and no enforcement. And even in the midst of a pandemic, even at the risk of lockdowns in their own communities, there are certain types of entrepreneurs that call themselves who really are living outside of the law, outside of the norms that every employee has to conform to or every good employer has to conform to theirs.
These guys are different. Well, certainly.
I mean, I'm sure they would say to themselves that they are complying with all the laws. But the point about it being is because there is a lack of transparency, there is a lack of a spotlight on this. And the workers, again, in most of those areas, largely migrant, are not represented and are also in the scenario whereby they may live in fear of ever speaking up. And I've come across this and some of these areas where it's very difficult.
And this is also actually referenced in the call. The committee by the demand from Septuagint, Greg, is that he gave example, said, you know, very often when situations arise and something's in the news, people in the media come to him looking for people who will talk to the media, both, you know, pretty standard. And he said this far more so than anywhere he's ever tried. You found next to impossible to get people who'd be willing to come forward and talk about the conditions they lived in.
So there's a huge element of fear there as well. And what seems to have happened in the pandemic is that chickens are coming home to roost to the extent that those conditions have been out there, that that lack of transparency has been out there. To a large extent, the body politic and one can argue whether or not society at large has turned a blind eye to what's going on, but we can't turn a blind eye when that scenario gives rise to the type of outbreaks that we're now seeing, which are direct.
And a lot of people would argue this. People are with the industry, that these attacks are a direct consequence of the type of conditions that people have to live in, in those industries and finally make.
There's no sign of any move against the people who are engaged in these practices and there's no urgency about holding them to account. And we couldn't expect any time soon to have the laws and rules that the rest of us are forced to abide by enforced in this particular area of capitalist magic.
Yeah, I mean, all the indications are and you know what? People don't want that piece I wrote. I suggest we should have a proper investigation now if one was to approach it that way. First of all, it would have to be seriously independent. You can argue whether it would be possible to get something that would be truly independent. It has to be completely independent, particularly, as I say, because of the record of success of elected and the permanent government.
You shouldn't lose sight of also with the permanent government complying with this as well, like the Department of Agriculture and places like that, there seems to be no enthusiasm there whatsoever to examine distinct properly. So if you had an outside investigation looking into it, one could hope that there'd be in some position to uncover what's going on. But even in that situation, would there be confidence that anything would change? And that's it's disturbing on a number of different levels.
It's disturbing that we're not having to say I'm going to be an election issue. And if it's not and if it suits the body politic to turn a blind eye, what is the contigo then? And the answer will be jobs. We need the jobs.
We need the jobs. And they'll also point out to us in rural Ireland, where a lot of these factories are based, the knock on effect for local economies, not all of which is valid in its own sense. But as I said in the first instance, the industry claims on one level that the type of pay rates and conditions they have, there are a function of what they say is a very low profit margin. In the first instance, we don't know that because it's totally there's no transparency in that area as to how much money is being made and whether it's really profiteering or not over it, this kind of thing.
It has been brought up by farmers previously in terms of of what they're getting for very recently is the like. And the other thing, not a very good point that was made at this. I think this to some extent goes to some of it, and that is meat. Meat processing is the highly regulated area. It is farm to farm strategy. And that everything is so regulated apart from the one area of working conditions. I would also say, you know, another scenario that could arise is if it's a situation that profit margins are anywhere as low as the industry is claiming, if that is the case, then a question arises as to is this right that we continue to have what is to a large extent low priced beef in our supermarkets is that is being achieved on the back of these kind of working conditions and a lack of transparency as to what is going on?
I mean, to be fair, we shouldn't lose sight of that issue either. And whether or not it's also convenient for society at large to turn a blind eye, because as long as we're getting our cheap beef, we prefer perhaps on one level not to think about how that's being produced. Yes, indeed.
And of course, it's being produced largely by immigrant workers who have no protection make. Thank you very much for joining us today. Clifford is the special correspondent of the Irish Examiner. We're very grateful to make to you for listening and of course, to our sponsors, Tesco. That's all we have time for now. We'll talk to you soon. The stand is proudly supported by Tesco at Tesco, our exclusive house for over sixty fives. Family carers and extremely medically vulnerable customers are every weekday, Monday to Friday, up to nine a.m..
Health care and emergency services have priority access at all other times now more than ever. Every little helps.