Migrant workers in some Irish meat plants say they have suffered increased discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic and believe factories are still prioritising production over employee health and safety.
Three Brazilian meat factory workers based in the midlands and south west of the country spoke to The Irish Times, under condition of anonymity and through a translator, about what they describe as the poor working conditions they face on a daily basis. None of the men interviewed work at any of the four plants which have closed in Kildare and Offaly in recent days.
Paulo*, who has worked in a meat plant in the midlands for nearly a decade, says conditions were bad even before Covid-19 hit. Years of working in meat factories results in severe physical and emotional exhaustion, he adds.
Paulo worked in meat production in Brazil before moving to Ireland but says the bullying he has experienced in Irish plants is shocking.
“My boss curses and shouts at me. I suffered so much that I went to the doctor and he gave me medication for depression. When I took time off because of a work injury my boss kept calling me threatening that I would lose my job if I didn’t come back. I got no payment when I was off sick. In the end I had to convince my doctor to let me go back to work early.”
David*, who works in the south west, says migrant workers (particularly Brazilians) in his plant are treated badly. “We always end up doing the harder, more physical jobs and I feel the supervisors abuse their powers because some Brazilians don’t speak English or have the right documents.” There is also discrimination from other workers who believe migrants are spreading the virus, he says.
Antonio*, who also works in the midlands, has not been bullied but says workers fear becoming ill because there is no sick pay available where he works. “My colleague was injured lifting heavy weights in the factory and had to take a week off. All us workers had to come together and raise money for him because there was no work support. I was told we wouldn’t get sick pay because we hadn’t been in the company long enough to receive benefits.”
Some 58 per cent of of the 15,338 people working in Irish meat plants are migrants with the majority coming from Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Moldova, Slovakia, Brazil, South Africa, Botswana and the Philippines, according to the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI).
Nine out of 10 of migrant workers in these plants do not have access to a company sick pay scheme, MRCI has found.
Asked in July during a Covid-19 committee hearing whether migrant workers in factories had access to sick pay schemes, Meat Industry Ireland senior director Cormac Healy said some companies offered support but that he didn’t know “the overall position across the industry”.
When Covid-19 arrived in Ireland in March, Paulo saw very few changes in his factory. “At first it was just signs on the ground telling us to social distance and a few hand sanitisers around the place. They asked us to wear masks but didn’t provide them for us. They told us we needed to social distance but no one was in enforcing it and there was no space to stay away from people when you are working.”
More stringent measures were introduced when the virus started spreading and following external pressure from health and safety bodies, he says. Paulo shares an apartment with his wife and is constantly worried about bringing the virus home.
“I go into work feeling scared every day. I do everything in my power to protect myself from the virus; I bring in my own mask and hand sanitiser and work as fast as I can to get in and out. The supervisors often shout into the dining hall telling us to physically distance from one another but it’s impossible, there’s too many workers eating.
“It’s been so difficult, I’ve nearly gone crazy working in that factory. Thinking about my family, that’s what keeps me going.”
Antonio says the plant he works for took “way too long to respond” to the virus and only started acting when a large number of staff became ill. Antonio and his housemate, who also works in the plant, tested positive for coronavirus but only suffered mild symptoms. While masks are available, workers must still share aprons and other protection clothing in the plant, he says. Like in Paulo’s plant, he says the eating area is always overcrowded. “We’re very exposed and it’s nearly impossible to stop the spread on the factory floor. But they don’t care as long as production continues.”
David’s wife and children also contracted the virus after it started spreading at his plant. He says production at his plant has actually increased in recent weeks, despite a number of employees being out sick. “I’ve been doing the work of four people to compensate. Before we would work until 2pm, now we have to stay in till 5pm. No one feels safe in that place now. I was happy to come to Ireland but I never expected life would be this hard.”
All three men have received leaflets in Portuguese explaining Covid-19 but continue to rely on Brazilian news reports for updates.
Asked whether workers are following Covid-19 restrictions, Paulo says people are “left up to their own devices” when it comes to health and safety. He expresses concern that his undocumented colleagues are suffering severe levels of bullying and are given the most difficult and physically draining jobs.
MRCI says the “small number” of undocumented migrants working in the meat sector are based in “smaller, less on-the-radar, meat plants”. These workers are very vulnerable, tend to be underpaid and often struggle to access their employment rights with the threat of deportation used by employers to bully and harass them, says the MRCI.
The three men agree that their employers’ number one priority remains meat production. “If someone got a cough they’re sent home without pay and can only come back once they have a negative coronavirus test,” says Paulo. “This is not to protect other workers, it’s just to keep the factory open.”
*Pseudonyms used to protect workers’ identities