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Today with Claire Byrne on RTG Radio one, if you complain, we will have another planeload of workers take your place. This is one of the shocking comments made factory workers allege are being made to them in the industry here in Ireland. Our reporter Brian O'Connell, who has previously broadcast interviews with whistleblowers inside meat factories, is back today with more on this industry and the issues that some workers say still process. Brian, thanks very much for joining us with this today.
And firstly, we can't identify the workers or the locations generally. It's been very difficult, hasn't it, to get workers inside meat plans to talk?
Yes. Good morning, Claire. It's been very difficult. Back in May, two whistleblowers spoke to me. And again, they spoke in June and they outlined back then serious concerns around PPE, around physical distancing and the general conditions inside and meat factories. Since then, I suppose I've spoken to many workers inside meat plants. We know almost 1500 workers in the industry have got covid, while many of them have told me about conditions off the record and told me about their fears, they're very, very reluctant to speak, even using an actor or translator.
And when you talk to workers, you begin to get a sense of why they're terrified of losing their jobs, even if they speak up on the most basic of things and they're constantly told, they tell me how easily they can be replaced. Now, in recent days, three workers did agreed to talk to me. They did so on condition I use a translator. I didn't identify them and I didn't say where they are working. They'll suffice to say this relates to more than one meat plant.
And I've taken measures to verify their accounts.
And some of what they say will alarm a lot of people because we all know there have been persistent issues with me plants, as you've outlined there. Just remind us, first of all, how many cases we faced.
Well, the Journal is reporting that close to 1500 cases have been reported in meat plants here. Outbreaks and clusters were linked to 28 meat plants around the country. Now, some plants have done very well. Some have gone so far as to suspend operations to deal with outbreaks and clusters. And we know there's been focus as well on the inspection regime on whether enough was done on to see what was happening inside plants. And I will come back to that.
OK, so explain to us what we're about to hear. The voice we're going to hear, Brian, is that of a translator?
Exactly. I interviewed the workers with a translator present. So it's hard. You're going to hear in these clips she's directly translating their words. So let's begin. I asked the workers firstly if the corvids related measures in the meat plants, they are working and are working. They asked people to to wear masks, but there is no way to to be apart, really, if you need to push the cattle around, you need two people to do that.
So we need to do it together. So the workers would be together a lot of the time and they don't go out and get some beautiful system. Isn't going to do that for you to see. They put plastic barriers between the workers. They ask us to wear masks and gloves and sanitize our hands. But in terms of getting infected with the virus, there's no all those measures are no good because all the measures there are only for the physical contact.
We end up getting in contact with each other any either way. If one person has the virus in the factory, everyone else will get it.
So there is no physical distancing and it must be something physical. There are two separate production lines for different areas of the factory, but we we will get to the changing room at the same time. And there are a lot of people to get. There is a lot of people together. So we wind up getting in contact with everyone at some stage.
What happens when somebody has to go for a test or if somebody gets sick? Do you get paid sick pay? At first, I thought everyone received sick pay, but I then I researched better and spoke to other colleagues and depending on the premise that you were on, you would receive the pain a lot. But a lot of people didn't receive it, didn't receive any pay.
They only received the pay from the government if somebody got sick on the line. Is there a lot more pressure on the people who are left than in reality?
When someone is sick or on holidays, it always overcharge the workers who are left behind because the company's goal of production doesn't change. So they expect the production to remain the same, even though there are less workers. So we end up doing the work of a lot of their workers for life work on.
So, Brian, that issue around productivity and what's expected of workers, that's something you came across several times. Yes.
Basically what workers were telling me is that production hasn't changed. Demand, if anything, has increased in factories. This is something I'd heard back in May and June from workers then as well. So the line speed is an issue for health and safety. Many feel we know at least 10 percent of the meat factory workforce has got covered. So as you heard there, if somebody is sick, the production demands are the same. And the workers who are left on the line, they feel under huge pressure.
There's huge uncertainty as well around sick pay. And a recent survey by the Migrant Rights Center, Ireland, they found nine out of 10 respondents said they don't get occupational sick pay. So that's a real factor in workers going for tests or maybe acknowledging that they have symptoms. I spoke to the workers as well earlier around their fears and the workplace culture, which does, I think, help explain why issues are not being flagged sooner. And I got to that because I wanted to question him a little bit more about the specific dangers around covered in their workplaces.
This is some of what they had to say for a company with so many workers is too hard to control.
For example, there is a piece of uniform that lots of workers are made to share. So we have to put on to to do a certain job. This uniform doesn't get washed. So if someone has the virus is stays there and someone else has to wear it again. A suspected case of covid-19. Everyone who lives in the same house together is made to stay home the night, or those people are paid every day to check our temperatures. But we only got tested once, one day again and we never got tested again in terms of pay.
Generally, I don't want to know exactly what people are earning, but am I right in saying between 10 and 15 euro an hour?
I started working at ten eighty five. But a worker I make thirteen fifty six. That's how when I was hired. But now that I worked in other functions, I started making a little bit more and no guarantee you will get sick pay.
We have no guarantee of sick pay. You get Covance. We don't know what would happen. The only change are the small measures such as masks and and hand sanitizer. While production is still going, you can never be safe. We need our jobs. The company needs to keep producing. And there's nothing we, the workers can do. Their company will never stop production and they will never send us home and pay us. At the same time. We have to take care of ourselves because they are not going to take care of us.
They keep threatening to close the company so we feel threatened and that we won't be paid if they close. We can't afford for the company to close it, for us not to get paid. Our lives go on and we have bills to pay. I don't feel safe in terms of coronavirus in factory. They put us all together on our collective transport taxi to work with people from all over we workers from all over the place and in the company itself.
There are the small measures that were put in place, such as masks and and plastic barriers. But nothing really changed. It's just it seems that it's all just for show, but no changes in reality.
No, I did speak to the meat industry are in this world and we'll get to their comments shortly because some of the workers also wanted to talk about how they were treated. If they do raise issues around, for example, PPY physical distancing, transport, and they feel because some of them are here on visas, which may be organized by employers, they feel in a very vulnerable position. And their employers, they feel know this.
I'm constantly worried about covid even though there are plastic barriers between the workers, we are always too close to each other. I thought about making suggestions to management, but I know they will never listen. We're always in the wrong in terms of the dining hall. They're always overcrowded. So they made some extra areas to the workers.
But those areas are also overcrowded in terms of being afraid to tell management. If you see things that are wrong, can you talk about that?
We avoid giving any suggestions to management first. They never listen to our opinion. Secondly, we don't speak their language. So we're words, discrimination, national. That's all those terms. We ask for more workers. To to do their work, to do a certain types of work, because we are overworked and it's actually need more bodies to do certain types of work. For example, a colleague of mine just fine a while ago and the company did not pay for for them to have their operation or when they were off sick.
You complain. They say they'll get a plane full of other workers for the would work for a fraction of what they pay you.
If you're not happy, you can pack your bags and go home when we go home, more mentally and physically exhausted because they've worked so hard and it's not meant to be done by just one person. And when we complain to H.R., he says to us, we're not happy you can go home and we get a plane full of water workers who work for a fraction longer for you.
And you heard that a lot, Brian, didn't you, that if you complain, you're told to be other people in to replace you. And also the transport issues which were raised there in those clips that they're all being sent to work together, this person alleges in taxis, regardless of where they're working or whether they're living with those people or not, everybody is put in together.
Yes, that issue was something that came up again and again. You could have five people sharing a taxi because transport wasn't being provided, even though they were telling me that before they came to Ireland, they were promised transport, they were promised English lessons, which is very important because they feel very difficult to try and raise issues because of the language barrier. Neither of these things they say transpired they can't afford a car, obviously. So they have to share transport, as you heard, to try and keep those travel costs down.
Finally, Claire, I asked workers if anything could be done to make their jobs safer.
The only thing that could be done is if they closed in everyone. But I think that would be impossible and it would never happen. So I really feel like there's nothing that could be done. If they closed their doors, they will hire us all and then we will be sent home with nothing to show for without a job. And we have our families. So those who have documents, they can get another job. But if they close, we're all sent home without a job.
Do you feel safe and more in you care about Osama beganto?
My husband, please. Was this essentially good and bad? You basically. No, I don't feel safe. A virus is a virus. We don't know where we'll get it. Even with the measures they put in place, we still don't feel safe. At the beginning, they didn't do anything apart from putting up plastic barriers. And then after a while they gave each worker one mask. So I had to go and buy a big bag of masks.
Otherwise I would have to wear the same mask every day.
Now, Brian, let's talk about reaction and response to what we've heard. You have some data from the Health and Safety Authority around inspections. You've also been speaking to meat industry Ireland and the Migrant Rights Centre, Ireland.
Well, the Migrant Rights Center, Ireland have been persistently highlighting issues around this since the start of the pandemic and indeed before it. They're calling for a 14 day factory closure. When workers have tested positive for covid-19, they say workers must be on full pay during this period. They say lines are running at full speed. As we heard. They say this could lead to serious injury if workers are out sick. Some people are ending up doing the job of two or three people and they say this is extremely dangerous.
OK, and I just want to bring people what meat industry? Ireland said we did invite a representative from meat industry here and onto the program. There's nobody available. But they did point out that the number of clusters has reduced to four. That's down from 22 in mid-May. They say the comprehensive measures in place, fully in line with HSC guidance are working. This was confirmed at the Iraq this covid-19 committee hearing on the 10th of August by both the Department of Agriculture, which has a permanent presence in our meat plants and by the HSA.
They are happy for the Workplace Relations Commission, the Health and Safety Authority and any other relevant state agency to inspect members' facilities unannounced as we're confident of the standards at which we operate. They also say primary meat processing is subject to the same employment laws as every other sector of the economy, and our members take their responsibilities as employers very seriously. And Brian, what did the health and safety authorities say?
Well, I'd asked the agency about the number of inspections and actions since May, and they said from mid-May to mid-August, they had completed 59 inspections of meat processing plants, including those connected with covid-19 outbreaks. No, I'd asked them what action they had taken on foot of these inspections, and they had said that they would have provided written reports of inspection, setting out the breaches identified in areas where the improvements were required. And they said there was a high level of compliance with those inspection reports.
So no enforcement notices were issued beyond a report of inspection. And they pointed out that a range of other inspection bodies have now been mobilized to check compliance and this will be drawn from a range of statutory body.
Brian, thank you very much for bringing us that report. And thank you to the meat industry workers who spoke to Brian and allowed us to bring you that today. I want to go to Michael McNamara, independent TD for Clare and chair of the Iraq this covid-19. Michael McNamara, you've been listening to that report. What did you make of it? Well, I mean, it was very disappointing, but not, unfortunately, entirely surprising from what we've heard of the government in committee, both from to and from the Independent Workers Union and from the Motor Trade Center.
And, you know, the whole covid pandemic has laid bare a number of structural weaknesses in Ireland, underinvestment in our health care system, overcrowded classrooms, and also the special position that meat plants appear to enjoy in the Irish state. And with regard to Irish government structures and obviously the permit system as it operates, it results in workers being almost in bonded labor. I mean, they can't they feel they can't leave their employment to move on to somebody else.
Technically, they can, of course, but they have to pay a thousand euros to move on. And there are obviously people who are working in meat plants, don't have a health insurance to move on to someplace else. And that sort of would imply there's another meat plant would take them. And that doesn't appear to be the practice.
And you know what? The rules are around sick pay because it seems that some of them weren't sure what their entitlements were.
Well, I mean, everybody is entitled to statutory sick pay, but I mean, to stick to that kicks in after a number of days. But it's up to an individual employer for the first couple of days. And when the meat industry, Ireland, were first before the committee on the 10th of July, they were able to say how many of their members pay when they come back again on the 30th of August. And they were able to confirm that.
They said that 20 percent, approximately 20 percent of the meat plants, no, not every new plant in Ireland is affiliated to meat industry Ireland. But of those that were 20 per cent were paying for that. I should say that on the 13th of August, we had the Health and Safety Authority and we had them in the ninth of in the 10th of July ah ah sorry, the 10th of May at our very first meeting. And they were only starting inspections then because they were saying that they didn't have the protocols put into those that carried out certain inspections.
The part of them were preannounced. I mean, this is at a time that the July bank holiday weekend, there were 6000 inspections of licensed premises under the Chicanas. I mean, there's a huge disparity between the state resources being put into inspecting meat plants, where there are clusters, where there have been repeatedly been and where there are concerns in other whether it was in other in other jurisdictions right across the world.
You heard what meat industry are and had to say to us today. They welcome unannounced inspections. They say they've no problem with that. And also and like this is an interesting point that they make, that the number of clusters has reduced from 22 in mid-May to four. And they say that's proof that the measures they have taken are working.
Well, I have to say it's the testimony which we heard from workers there. It didn't sound like the testimony of people who are confident that their workplace was in any way a safe place to work. And it wasn't the testimony of workers who are working in an environment which is paying due regard to the dangers. Of course. I mean, you know, three whole counties were locked out because of clusters in me. One of them is still locked out because of research originators in meat plants.
And then we hear this testimony here today. I mean, it does beg a lot of questions about how exactly the meat authorities of the meat plants are treated such a special manner by state authorities. And this isn't just with regard to workers. I mean farmers. You know, food production was was deemed to be an essential service and rightly so. But we have to bear in mind that meat plants don't produce food. They're processed foods and meat plants.
When this pandemic was at its height, we're paying farmers 340 per kilo for meat. Now, that's only about almost 20 percent below, which is the cost of production. At the same time as they were doing that, they were killing, according to Department of Agriculture figures, 95 Abuzaid, the same this time, that by August of this year they had killed 95 percent of the numbers that they had killed the previous year just to pay our farmers considerably less.
And they were claiming the temporary subsidy scheme for something is going on. And was farm bodies have repeatedly made complaints to the consumer, to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. And there's a really interesting article by the currency. We showed that in response to that complaint, the investigator just about everybody except the meat plants. So, I mean, they do seem to operate in a very special place in Ireland.
And I don't know why the NSA tells us that 59 inspections took place between May and August.
Will you bring them back in on the fact of what you've heard back in the meat industry? Well, I mean, there have been calls to set up a taskforce, and I'm happy to bring them back in again. But it's not for me. It's it's the committee as a whole make decisions on who to bring in, which organisations are. You know, I'm certainly happy to facilitate them coming back in again. But it's not I'm not going to pre-empt what the committee will do.
But there have been calls by Holly Kerans and others for a taskforce to look into the meat industry and how it operates in Ireland, not just with regard to how it treats its workers, which is hugely important. And it's appalling that any workers could should. And could be brought to Ireland to be exploited, if that is what's happening, and that's certainly what it sounds like, we've got to leave it there. Michael McNamara, thank you for joining us on the program today.
We'll take a quick break.
Email today, c.B at RTG, Dottie.