Keelings ask fruit pickers to segregate in ‘family units’

‘You may at times be required to change Family Unit,’ company document states

‘Social distancing guidelines should be followed at all times where reasonably practicable.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

‘Social distancing guidelines should be followed at all times where reasonably practicable.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

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Fruit pickers at Keelings have been placed in “family units” segregated from other workers in a bid to reduce any risk of spreading coronavirus, company documents show.

Keelings, which came under fire for bringing in Bulgarian workers on chartered flights, set out guidelines on how staff should associate with others, including members of the public.

Its policy, based on guidance from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, also tells employees they may be expected to move family and cannot congregate in groups of more than 49 people.

“As a ‘Family Unit’, you will be rostered to jobs together, travel together, use the canteen together and share accommodation facilities,” a company document states.

“Social distancing guidelines should be followed at all times where reasonably practicable, however in buses and canteens, the 2m social distancing guidelines must apply between different family groups or individuals.”

On board buses, family units must sit together and leave an empty bench space between themselves and the next group.

“You should know at all times what Family Unit you belong to. You may at times be required to change Family Unit,” the document sets out.

The company did not respond to requests for clarity on the nature of accommodation it provides to workers, who have also been asked to practise 2m distancing in public spaces.

There has been some concern among residents of a Co Louth town where 111 of the Keelings employees are being housed, given that they have been circulating in the area.

However, deputy mayor of Drogheda Cllr Michelle Hall said much of the earlier anxiety had eased when it was discovered those residents were not part of the group that arrived in Ireland last week.

Ms Hall, who has maintained contact with the company, previously outlined her discomfort that workers “are being put at risk by living together in such high numbers”.

Groceries delivered

In a statement Keelings said the 189 recent arrivals were adhering to HSE guidance on restricted movement and that groceries were being delivered to them. Company management declined to be interviewed.

The north Dublin company is reliant on about 900 seasonal labourers and is unable to source anything near the sufficient level of local applicants to fill the roles. It is estimated to be one of the biggest such producers in the country. However, many other farms employ seasonal workers from abroad and the practice is common in other EU countries.

According to the Irish Farmers’ Association, Germany is accepting 80,000 during April and May. The UK is reliant on a similar number, and farmers and recruiters there have also begun to use charter flights.

Seasonal workers must be paid the minimum wage in Ireland, although it is understood they can earn up to about €15 an hour. It is unclear how much Keelings pays its workers, although the role of crop walker – which includes monitoring growth – earns €10.80 per hour, according to documents.

An industry source said seasonal workers came to Ireland early this year in order to comply with rules on restriction of movement on arrival.

Although Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested the Government would look at how Irish workers might fill seasonal jobs, the source said harvesting without imported labour would be unmanageable.

“These people are critical elements of the harvest.”

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