Covid-19 has thrust the Republic's multibillion-euro meat industry into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Outbreaks of the virus among workers in several plants forced their temporary closure, and were a factor in the Government partially shutting down counties Kildare, Laois and Offaly.
The meat industry has two basic divisions. One is primary processing, which involves killing the animals, butchering them, packing the cuts and selling them to shops, restaurants, fast-food chains including McDonald’s and Burger King, food service businesses and others.
Customers include the secondary processors, who buy cuts, and cook and pack them for sale to retailers and delis. Those are the businesses that produce the packaged cooked hams and other meats that you find on supermarket shelves.
Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which represents the primary processors, calculated that its sector generated sales of €4.5 billion in 2018, €4 billion of which was in exports, making it one of the Republic's biggest homegrown industries.
It employed around 15,000 people that year, with spin-offs in transport, servicing and other support businesses. Britain and Europe lead the export destinations for Irish meat, but products are sold as far away as the Middle East, the United States and China.
Cormac Healy, MII senior director, is quick to point out that only one primary processor – Kildare Chilling in Co Kildare – had to halt operations after Covid-19 was detected among its workforce. All others continued to trade.
“That’s out of 40 to 50 primary producers,” Healy emphasises.
A combination of consumers' – and thus retailers' – demand for cheap food and the need to pay farmers for the animals means that it is not well paid
The three other plants where work temporarily halted were secondary producers. They were Carroll Cuisine, in Tullamore, Co Offaly, which restarted operations this week, O'Brien Fine Foods – the maker of Brady Family Ham – in Timahoe, Co Kildare, which hopes to resume full operations on Monday following a phased restart, and Irish Dog Food, also in Kildare.
The big players in the primary business are already well-known Irish companies. The Larry Goodman-led ABP Foods employs 2,300 people in Ireland and 10,000 around the world. The group says its sales are around €3 billion a year.
Kepak has 5,000 workers and yearly revenues of €1.5 billion. Dawn Meats has 2,000 Irish staff and turns over €2 billion a year. No plant operated by those three companies here halted operations as a result of Covid outbreaks among staff this month.
On the secondary side, prominent players include O’Brien’s Fine Foods, the company behind Brady Family Hams. That business employs 500 people across three plants. Carroll Cuisine, in Tullamore, employs around 300 people.
Meat processing is labour-intensive and the work is hard, particularly at the primary end. Martin Frayne, director of Protential Resources, an agency that provides staff for the industry, says it is "tough and physical". A combination of consumers' – and thus retailers' – demand for cheap food and the need to pay farmers for the animals means that it is not well paid. General operatives can expect to earn around €22,000 a year while skilled workers will make around €27,000.
Pay, conditions and the role of agencies became flashpoints in the debate that followed news of the coronavirus outbreak. Workers sharing accommodation and lifts to their jobs posed an extra risk of infection spreading.
Greg Ennis, the manufacturing division organiser with trade union Siptu, notes that this was further complicated by the fact that as increasing numbers of workers come from outside Ireland, those from the same countries, or with shared cultural backgrounds, tended to live together while working in different factories.
There were also fears that the lack of sick-pay schemes meant staff with symptoms were showing up to work.
Ennis and other trade unionists believe the Covid-19 outbreak is a signal that working conditions in the meat industry need to improve. First, he says that employees should receive at least a basic living wage, above the minimum.
He considered seeking a sectoral employment order to guarantee this. These orders set pay and other conditions in construction. However, the High Court recently ruled that the legislation underpinning it was unconstitutional. Still, Ennis argues that there are other ways of boosting meat factory workers' pay.
His second point is that employers should have sick-pay schemes for meat processing workers.
Third, he says, "We need to ban the use of sub-contractors in meat processing." Ennis adds that Germany, where the industry recently ran into similar problems as its Irish counterpart, did this recently.
Both arms of the industry now employ large numbers of foreign staff, mainly citizens from other EU states, who have the right to work here, with a smaller number of people from outside the bloc recruited under a Government scheme that introduced a work permit system for the industry.
The reason is that local people are increasingly moving away from traditional industrial work and into services. Estimates of the breakdown between Irish and foreign workers on meat factory floors range between 70/30 and 80/20. Frayne points out that this trend began in the late 1990s. “It’s not a new phenomenon at all,” he says.
Skilled butchers and de-boners, particularly those producing speciality cuts for specific markets, are very well paid
Growing prosperity and opportunities closer to home in eastern Europe, from where the industry began attracting workers earlier this century, is now making it harder to find candidates there. This has prompted meat processors to cast their nets wider still for staff.
Consequently, the government introduced a work-permit scheme two years ago to allow the sector to recruit from outside the EU. That scheme has clear rules. Candidates must have a permit and a two-year renewable contract, which counts as “permanent”, before getting on a flight to the Republic in the first place.
When it was first introduced, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation allocated 500 permits to meat processing. That rose to 1,800 by the end of 2019, a figure that included an allocation of 300 for workers with special skills, mostly in the areas of de-boning and cutting meat.
Healy maintains that the industry offers workers good opportunities. He concedes that people can start on the factory floor on low wages, but they can progress, particularly through learning new skills, which will increase their pay.
At the other end, he says that skilled butchers and de-boners, particularly those producing speciality cuts for specific markets, are very well paid.
The meat industry continues to deal with the fact that its customers want high-quality products as cheaply as possible
Shane McLave, director of Excel Recruitment, another firm that hires workers regularly for the meat industry, makes a similar argument.
He notes that individual employees can be hired on temporary contracts, but then opt to stay if they like the job or learn extra skills through training. He also says that most butchers hired through his company tend to be Irish.
In general, recruiters hire a mix of permanent and temporary staff. Both Excel and Protential say that some staff they take on for processors initially begin by working for the agency before being taken on by the plants themselves. Those companies, and another, AA Euro Group, stress that they work within employment law.
Those laws, set by the Oireachtas and the EU, allow for some practices that were questioned in recent weeks. One is the A1 "posted abroad" system, through which staff working here were paid in Poland or some other European state. That scheme, part of EU law, allows workers here to be paid and taxed in their home countries for up to two years.
Patrick McCarthy, group finance director at AA Euro Group, told RTÉ’s Prime Time current affairs show last week that this is allowed under EU law. He added that it also worked the other way: Irish employees based in European countries for a period can continue to be paid and taxed here under the same provision.
McLave points out that all workers hired through Excel get the full range of health and safety training, much of which pre-dates Covid-19’s arrival. Staff now get full personal protective equipment, along with instruction in hand hygiene and other virus-prevention measures.
Meanwhile, the Health Service Executive (HSE) has begun an on-site screening programme for the industry.
Against this background, the meat industry continues to deal with the fact that its customers want high-quality products as cheaply as possible, while its suppliers argue that the prices they receive make it difficult for them to make a living.
The controversy over the recent spike in Covid cases among some companies can only add to those pressures.
ABP Foods Beef processing is one of four divisions within ABP, whose other businesses are proteins, pet food and renewable energy. The company has 47 plants, of which six are in the Republic and two are in Northern Ireland. The others are in Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and Austria. It employs 10,000 people, 2,300 of them here. Most of what it produces here is exported. The group has revenues of €3 billion a year. It says that it does not hire agency workers.
Kepak Kepak has sales of €1.5 billion a year and employs 5,000 people. It has 14 manufacturing plants in the Republic and Britain, along with offices here, the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa. Key markets are Ireland, Britain, the EU, China, Canada and the US. In 2018, it bought the UK business of 2 Sisters Red Meats from Boparan Holdings.
Dawn Meats Dawn Meats has 10 plants in the Republic and one in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. It has a further 11 in Britain. Its sales exceed €2 billion a year. The company employs more than 2,000 workers in the Republic. It points out that, as is normal in most industries, it uses recruitment firms to hire some staff but does not employ people through agencies or take on workers as self-employed contractors. Dawn exports to more than 50 countries. The UK is the biggest market, followed by continental Europe, including Scandinavia, Germany, Iberia, Italy and the Netherlands.
Its plant in Kilbeggan, Co Meath was briefly closed as a precaution following four confirmed cases among workers there, but none of its operations in the Republic closed during the recent spike.
O'Brien Fine Foods O'Brien Fine Foods is a family-run business with three plants: in Timahoe, Co Kildare, Rathcairn, Co Meath and Rathowen, Co Westmeath. It employs more than 500 people, managing this internally and through Irish recruitment firms. The company sells its products, mostly under the Brady Family Ham brand, across Ireland, north and south. It does not disclose financial information.
O’Brien Fine Foods suspended processing at Timahoe on August 5th after a small number of Covid cases were detected among staff. The company is taking a controlled, phased approach to restarting there, with normal operations due to resume on Monday August 24th.
Carroll Cuisine Carroll Cuisine employs more than 300 people at its plant in Tullamore, Co Offaly. It hires all staff itself through its human resources department. Most Irish consumers are familiar with its branded, pre-packed cooked meats, sold in supermarkets. The business also produces own-brand meat for grocery chains, and supplies delis.
It has restarted processing following a temporary suspension prompted by positive Covid tests on some staff, which the company obtained itself. Subsequent tests by the HSE found no additional positive cases.