'Hot-bedding' and bogus work practices taking place in meat plants, union claims

State to investigate claims by union of bogus employment practices in meat sector

The meat processing industry contains "unrivaled vectors for the transmission of Covid-19", with around 90 per cent of workers in the industry not receiving sick pay, Siptu divisional organiser Greg Ennis has told the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee.

 

The Department of Social Protection has said it will investigate claims made by Siptu of alleged bogus self-employment and sub-contracting in the meat sector.

The union alleges employment practices in Irish meat plants are depriving the State of tax revenue and leaving workers without key pandemic-linked illness and unemployment benefits.

The claims are contained in an opening statement to be delivered to the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee on Thursday, in which the union calls for an end to the practice of “hot-bedding”, or the use of the same bed by meat sector workers on alternate shifts.

More than 40 migrant meat plant workers are sharing “rooms /accommodation” in one Midlands town, Siptu divisional organiser Greg Ennis will tell the hearing, convened to examine recent large Covid-19 outbreaks in meat plants in the Midlands.

Mr Ennis claims “so-called ‘sole traders’ [are] working in Irish meat plants, paying tax in Poland, with employers avoiding PRSI contributions, workers missing out on leave and welfare benefits, and the State being denuded of tax revenue”.

Without being registered and having a PPS number, workers are ineligible for enhanced illness benefits or the pandemic unemployment payment.

Asked about the claims by Mr Ennis, the Department of Social Protection said on Wednesday night that if the union wished to provide information, it would examine each case.

A department spokeswoman said where a worker was posted from abroad, the employer was obliged to notify the Workplace Relations Commission. There have been no such notifications from meat factories in 2020.

Travel restrictions

Meanwhile, public health officials have defended the blanket re-imposition of travel restrictions in three Midlands counties following the outbreaks.

More than 90 per cent of the workers at the three plants in counties Kildare, Offaly and Laois live in these counties, according to acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn.

He was responding to criticism that the measures were too widely spread and could have been limited to the towns where the plants are situated.

While agreeing the restrictions were a “blunt instrument”, Dr Glynn said there was a “misperception” that all of the cases were located close to the processing plants where the workers were employed.

The restrictions were applied across the three counties for a reason, he said, adding that cases of the virus had occurred in Birr, Ferbane, Clara, Tullamore, Edenderry, Maynooth, Clane, Newbridge, Athy, Durrow and Abbeyleix in recent days.

“People work in a particular place but they live and socialise and meet people all across these counties,” Dr Glynn told the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) briefing on Wednesday. He warned people living in adjacent counties to also be on their guard, pointing out “there’s nothing magic about a county border that protects you”.

NPHET reported another 40 confirmed cases on Wednesday, including 12 in Dublin, 11 in Kildare, seven in Offaly and none in Laois.

However, Dr Glynn warned there were likely to be days over the next week when the number of cases was “significantly higher”.

Lower numbers

Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of a NPHET advisory group, pointed out the 40 new cases “seems low” only when seen through the prism of the large numbers of cases reported over the past week. Wednesday’s caseload was still two to three times higher than the number of cases being reported in late June, he said.

The reproduction number, a measure of how much the virus is being transmitted, had dropped from 1.8 last week to an estimated 1.6 this week, he reported.

Seventy per cent of cases over the past 14 days occurred in the large Midlands clusters, with fewer than 10 cases a day of community transmission.

However, there had been smaller outbreaks in counties Clare, Donegal, Wexford and Carlow, he said.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the Government’s aim was to “flatten the curve” and to minimise the risk of the health service being overwhelmed until either herd immunity was developed, “which would take an extremely long time” or, more likely, a vaccine was developed.

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