The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Before today’s debate on on the situation in meat processing plants, Nora Labo (above), Romanian Organiser of The Cork Operative Butchers Society branch of the Independent Workers Union.
Ms Labo told the committee:
“The Cork Operative Butchers Society branch of the Independent Workers Union has been supporting workers in meat plants and in the meat industry for a long time and has been in daily contact with workers of different nationalities employed in several meat plants around Munster for the duration of the pandemic thus far.
As the workforce in this industry is largely foreign, with limited English fluency, I emphasise that our union, even though it is small, has had privileged access to these workers’ experiences, as our team includes Polish and Romanian-speaking organisers, and the union constantly strives to provide translation for any other language which is necessary for organising this diverse workforce.
I personally have been in contact with Romanian workers in several plants each day since the beginning of the pandemic.
This union believes there is no intrinsic reason why working in a meat plant should be more conducive to contracting Covid-19 than working in any other environment.
We are convinced that the reason Ireland has witnessed so many worrying outbreaks in meat plants in the past months is due to the workers’ substandard employment and living conditions which are the result of the industry’s long-term disregard for the well-being of its staff.
These problems are aggravated by the unscrupulous practices of the work placement agencies through which many of the workers in this sector are employed.
Based on our membership a high percentage, perhaps 40% or 50% – we do not know – of these workers are employed through agencies.
I would like the committee to bear in mind that, in our view, these Covid-19 outbreaks are simply the most visible consequence of chronic issues that should be of great concern in their own right.
First, there is the question of overcrowded accommodation. Many meat plants are in rural areas where there is a shortage of suitable accommodation to begin with.
As most meat workers are paid the minimum wage, often with no overtime premium, their tight budgets force them into seeking shared accommodation, sometimes even with several families in the same house.
At the same time, being foreign and with a limited command of English is a real disadvantage in independently securing accommodation. Many workers we know are being housed by their employment agencies which, seeking to maximise profit from the accommodation they provide to their employees, crowd as many people as possible into each house they let.
This reckless behaviour on the agencies’ part also led to people being moved from one shared house to another during the height of the pandemic in an effort to keep each house full so as not to lose income. Our union has documented several such cases.
The workers housed by the employment agencies never get a proper contract for their paid accommodation, even after several years of living in the same place, so they can be moved around or evicted without notice, both of which have happened since March to workers we know.
It is obvious that this dismal housing situation favours the spread of Covid-19 among workers and, despite relating to conditions outside of work, is a result of low pay and dependency on the employer for accommodation.
Second, most workers need to provide their own transportation to get to work. As I said earlier, many meat plants are in quite remote areas and the employers make no effort to provide any transport. There is no public transport available.
On a tight budget, the workers car pool and they fill the cars to capacity. This has continued throughout the pandemic as most employers make no effort to facilitate the safe and socially distant transport option, either through a company bus or with financial assistance for private transportation, both of which would have been possible, while perfectly aware of how their staff get to work every day.
Third, many workers in this sector do not benefit from a sick-pay scheme with their employer and this is especially the case with all the agency workers we know. This means that these workers, while already on very low pay, know that when they are ill they will not be able to earn any money at all.
Of course, this logically leads to some workers being less cautious than they should ideally be after noticing early symptoms of what might or might not be a worrying condition.
We also know that many workers, after years in Ireland, do not have a GP, which can be seen as an indirect consequence of extremely difficult working conditions.
When working on minimum wage, one has to work excessive hours, often more than 50 hours a week, to get by. This limits the time available to find a doctor and the time to learn the basics of English to communicate with a medical professional. One has to pay for the doctor and often also for the translator when visiting the doctor.
A special case of this lack of access to healthcare, but of great importance, is that of a great number of workers, all Romanian, who were for years cheated out of their social security rights in Ireland by the employment agency which was hiring them to work in several meat plants in Munster.
This agency employed all these Romanian nationals as self-employed contractors declared in Poland, so all the workers’ contributions were sent to the Polish and not the Irish Revenue.
I emphasise it is our union that has uncovered hundreds of such cases and we have filed hundreds of complaints to the Workplace Relations Commission.
For many years, all of these workers have had no annual leave, no right to illness benefit, no rights to child allowance, had no PPS numbers, and were de facto invisible in Ireland.
While some of these workers were self-isolating on suspicion of Covid-19 in March, they had no access to a doctor, no GPs would take them and their agency tried to force them to apply for unemployment benefit instead of the Covid-19 illness benefit, taking advantage of the fact that the workers had no GPs and no English.
Our union is present in several plants where this agency operates in Munster and we have knowledge of other places in Ireland where the same practices are happening and where the same agency supplies workers.
When these workers have no legal existence in Ireland for years they are also not entitled to illness benefit and they are extremely vulnerable. Based on these observations I will emphasise one last point.
These workers are not just vectors for a virus. They are not just vectors for a disease. They are people with full lives. It is important to take into account all aspects of their lives when we think about how to prevent this disease.
For example, if Perspex screens are introduced and we do not take into consideration that the workers then must lift heavy crates above the Perspex screens, then their workload is greatly increased and, while the pace of their work has never slowed during the pandemic, such measures will not work.
The workers’ well-being, their workload, their mental health, their income and social and economic conditions have to be taken into account if we want to contain this disease.
We recommend unannounced inspections. However, we also recommend democratically elected workers’ health and safety committees in each factory and these should be consulted on any measures.
Thorough investigations should take place in all meat plants to see how workers’ contracts operate and how their accommodation is provided for by their employers.”
Earlier: A Lot To Process
No surprise whatsoever that nothing said by Nora Labo at the Covid19 committee hearing today was reported by RTE on its News at One. The same RTE which failed to report the recent Europol report on horsemeat seized from Irish meat plants. https://t.co/iTRX7f03xm pic.twitter.com/VVQP4EAlWp
— nwl (@nwl88444048) August 13, 2020
On the production rate…
“Production never slowed down. I have sources in killing, dispatch, packing, boning and all other parts of the meat plant. The volume processed in every meat plant that we are in contact with has increased even though there have been fewer workers. The companies could not source foreign workers at the height of lockdown and, when some workers got ill, others would just have to do more work.”
On instructions regarding PPE…
“In many meat plants, for instance, we know workers employed through agencies received a text message or email from their agency – very brief and often only in English – about the PPE they were going receive. Often, they came with no instructions in their own language as to whether the face mask was reusable, single use or essential information like this.
“Sometimes workers called me with a photo of the mask and asked me to tell them how to use it, could it be re-used or how long it was good for because no such instructions had been given by the employing agencies. In terms of translation and everything else it has been dismal. For some communities that have been in Ireland for longer, like the Polish community, perhaps the factories have some available translation or supervisors who are already from that background and speak the language.
“For some other recent arrivals, such as many Chinese workers in Munster, for example, there is little support. It is the same for Brazilians, East Timorese or other communities.”
On working while sick…
“We know of a situation in a food production plant, which is not a meat plant but a dairy one in west Cork, where during lockdown around May, some workers had very obvious symptoms and were not purposely trying to hide them but wanted to stay home. The employers, however, insisted that these workers continue coming into work.
“There was a significant walkout of all the factory employees on that shift in order to protest as to their own lack of safety…It is often not the workers who would willingly dissimulate their symptoms but is more likely the shift supervisors.”
On housemates of workers who test positive for Covid-19 going to work…
“There is one plant which is strongly unionised, with members in our union in west Cork, where there was a massive cluster of Covid. While some of the workers tested positive and were told to self-isolate, other workers living in the same house were told to keep coming to work, even though there was contact tracing and management had all the workers’ addresses so that it was obvious that these workers were all living in the same place…
“We filed complaints on behalf of the workers who were put at risk. There was a confluence of factors in that case. The workers had to wait a long time to get their test results and they kept working in the meantime. We have filed complaints. As the Deputy knows, the Workplace Relations Commission has not been working since March.”
On the length of time most workers have been living in Ireland…
“I would like to specify that just because workers come from a foreign country and are considered migrant workers does not mean that they have not habitually been living in Ireland for a long time…In all the factories in which we have unionised, approximately 90% of workers are foreign but most have been living in Ireland for more than five years.
“Even though their contracts with their agencies classify them as temporary workers so as to deprive them of their collective bargaining rights, they are not in fact temporary workers. They are people who live in Ireland, like Irish citizens who live here all year around, and have been working in the same jobs for ten years. As such, it is not a workforce in transit or a seasonal one in any way. It is a permanent workforce which happens to be foreign, quite vulnerable and marginalised.”
On agencies encouraging workers to apply for Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment instead of illness benefit when ill…
“For many of these workers, especially agency workers, the agencies sometimes actively tried to discourage them from applying for the Covid-19 illness benefit and tried to make them apply for the pandemic unemployment payment when they were self-isolating while ill.
“We do not know the reasons for this but we suspect it was because they did not want any clusters to show up. Our union – often me – has had to help workers by providing them with the relevant forms, filling in these forms for them and so on. This is because the employment agencies for foreign workers have made no effort to help them access any of the payments they were entitled to while ill and self-isolating at home.
“Workers were actively discouraged from seeking illness benefit even at the beginning of the pandemic when there was a huge financial difference between the unemployment payment, which was still at €203 per week, and illness benefit which was €350 per week. The agencies kept trying to force people to apply for the unemployment payment, probably so that a cluster would not appear in that area and would not show up in the statistics.”
On the consequence of not having a PPS number
“For instance, a lot of the forms for the Covid-19 illness benefit were not available online for most of March when we had some early clusters. Many people did not have GPs as they did not have a PPS number. This was because they had been scammed by their employment agency. These workers were in a very difficult situation and the agencies and the hirers, by which I mean the factory owners, did not help their staff in any way. They just sent them home to self-isolate without supplies.
“These workers were desperate and it is only because they were unionised that we could help them. We do not know if other non-unionised workers went through a whole ordeal without accessing any payments.
“There were also very long delays in accessing these payments. As the workers do not speak English, they found it hard to contact the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to see how their application was going. For instance, we had a case of six workers who only in July received payment for the two weeks in March during which they self-isolated.”
On the housing of workers by employment agencies…
“We would definitely support [a task force examining workers’ rights in the sector] it, but we would also demand that union representatives would be allowed to carry out inspections in unionised workplaces. This has been a demand of trade unions in Ireland for a long time. That happens in other European countries and it would be of great benefit to workers if their representatives would also be able to be present during inspections to see what is happening.
“We would also like the task force perhaps to address the fact that people who are housed by employment agencies do not have the same rights as normal tenants. They have scam contracts that allow them to be evicted with no notice and shifted around from one house to another. That could easily be discovered in an inspection.
“We also want agency employment to be better regulated in Ireland because from what we see, in hundreds and perhaps thousands of cases, agency workers always have worse conditions than those who are directly employed, even though that is clearly illegal and could be discovered in a routine inspection.
“We also want to make sure that all workers in meat plants in Ireland are declared in Ireland so that their PRSI contributions are paid and that they have access to social security. They would be the priorities for the task force but I would like to insist that a union presence in inspections would strengthen workers’ rights and their bargaining power with their employers.”
On the rate of pay at a poultry plant…
“I will give an example of a poultry plant that is unionised with our union. This poultry plant processes 45,000 chickens a day with 90 staff on the production floor. We have calculated that if every member of staff got a pay increase of €1 an hour, it would only affect the price per chicken by 8 cent. This would probably still keep these chickens competitive. Profits are at an all-time high. Production never stopped and actually increased during the pandemic.
“All these workers are agency workers and the agency is getting €15 per hour for each worker, but the workers are only getting €10. The head supervisor in this factory who has been there 13 years is paid €12 an hour with no premium for overtime.”
On the blacklisting of workers who speak out…
“… I would like to emphasise how hard it is for workers to obtain proper health and safety given the union busting techniques that many employers resort to in these meat packing plants. We have had many cases of workers who have unionised or unionised colleagues whose relatives were then denied employment in the same factories and who were blacklisted from all factories in the area if they left their employment or fought for their rights at work.
“While we have recent important victories with, for instance, workers managing to establish health and safety committees in their factories, to kick out the agency which exploited them and to be directly employed, it is almost heroic for these migrant workers to achieve anything because there is much harassment and intimidation. There are many conjugated efforts from agencies and direct employers to eliminate unions from the equation. Unions would need stronger powers in this country if workers are to have their rights supported.”
Transcript via Oireachtas.ie