Government has failed Keelings and its workers

Company unfairly dragged through a ditch in court of public opinion

  Keelings broke no rules or guidelines in flying in the seasonal workers from Sofia to pick the strawberry harvest. Photograph: Alan Betson

Keelings broke no rules or guidelines in flying in the seasonal workers from Sofia to pick the strawberry harvest. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The Government’s botched handling of the faux drama over the Keelings Bulgarian fruit pickers has caused serious damage to that company’s reputation.

Spurred on by baseless, PR-driven innuendo from the highest political office in the land, Keelings has been unfairly dragged through a ditch backwards in the court of public opinion.

It broke no rules or guidelines in flying in the seasonal workers from Sofia to pick the strawberry harvest, a task that Irish workers have long since spurned. The rules also appear to have been correctly followed by the airline, Ryanair, and Dublin Airport, where they landed.

But details rarely matter to the motley crew of knee-jerk anti-corporatists and anti-foreigner sock puppets who, enabled by innuendo from those who should know better, drove the worst of the social media frenzy.

Apology

If Taoiseach Leo Varadkar really places as much importance on fairness and humility as his calm demeanour suggests, he should consider apologising to Keelings for his Government’s role in exposing the family-owned business to such an intense publicity shellacking.

Why? Because senior State officials, including Varadkar and his Minister for Health Simon Harris gave succour to the company’s ill-informed critics by incorrectly hinting that Keelings had done something bad.

They helped to create a stink that lingers. When the Government did this, it badly let down Keelings and its workers. No amount of State spin should be allowed to hide that fact.

For those of us whose brains are fried by this infernal lockdown, and who may not recall the details, it is worth quickly reminding ourselves of what happened.

Last Monday, April 13th, 189 Bulgarian fruit pickers flew in to Dublin from Sofia on a chartered plane, hired to pick the strawberry harvest before it rots. Only 40 Irish workers had applied for the jobs at that time.

Keelings says the Bulgarians were checked by doctors before they boarded. Ryanair says it adhered to World Health Organisation guidelines on the flight.

Someone purporting to be a Ryanair employee wrote to a Meath councillor, Alan Lawes, expressing concern about a lack of social distancing on the flight. Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe also slammed Keelings for “poor judgment” and criticised it because the workers had clearly travelled more than 2km.

He obviously did not understand that the 2km travel limit applies only to lockdown exercise in Ireland. In any event, such workers are considered essential and the European Union has allowed for their cross-border travel. European leaders, including Varadkar, specifically asked the EU for this weeks ago.

When the workers landed, they were filmed getting into vehicles. Keelings says they were brought to housing with restricted movement for 14 days, before they start work. The footage heralded a social media frenzy of righteousness.

Some seemed angry that Bulgarians may have brought in Covid-19. Some were annoyed that the jobs had not gone to a phantom battalion of Irish workers that supposedly wanted them. Others, mostly on the political left, seemed annoyed that some workers must do the mucky job of picking fruit at all. Greedy corporations, juicy profits, exploitation, something, something.

Full fettle

Few of the critics knew what they were talking about, but soon that didn’t matter. The frenzy mob was in full fettle, rolling around cyberspace like a sack of angry cats, showering us all in a hail of spittle that obscured any common sense.

The chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, responded to a question by expressing his unease with the situation and suggesting the travel was against advice, even though such worker movements are specifically provided for by the EU.

With his and his advisers’ ears ever-attuned to public opinion, Varadkar said he shared Holohan’s “discomfort”, even though he was among the leaders who had asked the EU that they be facilitated.

Harris, who even when he is working himself to the bone has an ear for the mood on social media, said he was “deeply uneasy”. Sensing a nod from above, the frenzy went into overdrive.

Some critics may have had genuine concerns over the conditions of what they perceived to be vulnerable workers. But from others, there was a clear and disgusting innuendo: that dirty foreigners could bring disease into Ireland.

The irony is that if people are worried about Bulgarian workers spreading Covid-19 in Ireland, they ought to look at that country’s numbers. By Wednesday of this week, the central European state had just 1,024 confirmed cases and 49 deaths. Compare this to Ireland’s 16,671 confirmed cases and 769 deaths.

Bulgaria’s population is 40 per cent larger than the Republic’s. You could argue with some justification that its government appears to be doing a better job of controlling the spread of the virus than Varadkar and his colleagues.

If people are worried that foreign workers could already have the virus, they should consider that the fruit pickers may be 16 times more likely to be already infected if they were recruited on Irish soil, as opposed to hiring them in Sofia.

The Keeling family can justifiably feel hard done by in all this. The company is now out on a publicity limb. It had better hope that the health of its workers is constantly monitored. If the Bulgarian workers are unlucky enough to suffer an outbreak of Covid-19 – it could happen to anyone – the frenzy will get nasty.

Cooped up

Perhaps some of the drama was driven, in part, by the public’s general anxiety as we remain cooped up in our homes and worried about the people we love.

We are bouncing off the walls. We are collectively under huge emotional and mental strain. That includes Varadkar and Harris, who even if they have made some mistakes, have made them while trying to do their best for the rest of us.

But let us not succumb to fact-free innuendos. Let us not be apologists for cheap nonsense about foreign workers. Ignore racist rabble rousers online. Challenge those who peddle anti-business dogma for political reasons.

In the months to come, if you are lucky enough to savour a juicy, sweet Irish strawberry, think not of the angry headbangers online. Think of the worker who went out there and picked that fruit for your benefit. And be thankful.

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