by Daniel Waldron

“If the disease was in the animals, they’d have closed the place. But for workers, the factories can do what they want.” – Worker in an Irish meat factory, speaking to The Guardian

Even at the best of times, working in meat processing can be tough. It is physically demanding, repetitive and, for many, unpleasant by nature. It is also an industry where low pay is the norm, with migrant workers making up much of the workforce.

However, meat workers are now facing a new and serious threat in the form of Covid-19. Internationally, the industry has become a hotspot for the virus, with rates of infection dwarfing those among the wider population. Clusters of infection have broken out in many factories, including more than a dozen in Ireland, North and South. A worker at Moy Park in Dungannon has tragically died as a result of the virus.

Why is this industry so badly hit? Firstly, it has continued to operate throughout lockdowns, deemed as essential to maintain food supplies. Secondly, the production process usually involves staff working in close proximity, at least on parts of the line.

Clusters are preventable

But spread of the disease could have been prevented if adequate PPE, sanitation, distancing and testing measures were put in place at the outset of this crisis. However, bosses in this highly profitable industry have chosen to put their bottom line ahead of the health and safety of workers, their families and the wider community. They have been facilitated in this by a lack of enforcement by government agencies.

Temperature testing has been implemented widely across the sector in Ireland. However, given that many people carrying the virus are asymptomatic, this is ineffective unless coupled with other measures. Workers in many factories report that, at least initially, PPE and distancing measures were inadequate at best.

Health & Safety Executive not up to the task

In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, the statutory body responsible for overseeing workplace conditions – the Health & Safety Executive – has been slow to respond to the emergence of clusters of infection, and its recommendations have been limited and poorly enforced. This reflects the limitations of health and safety legislation, but also the outlook of the administration to which it is tied. Instead, it has been workers and their trade unions who have taken the lead in standing up for health and safety.

Workers take action

In late March, around 100 workers at Moy Park – the largest private sector employer in the North, which made pre-tax profits of £64.5 million last year – in Portadown staged a walkout over lack of enforcement of safety measures. Similar protests by workers took place at ABP Meats in Lurgan and Linden Foods in Dungannon. These actions did win some improvements in conditions.

The latest walkout took place on Monday 11th May at the Foyle meat factory in Omagh, where a major cluster of infection has emerged, with around 40 staff affected. The company has since boasted of implementing a ‘100% testing policy’ of its staff. However, workers with access to a vehicle are being asked to make a two-hour round trip to get tested. More importantly, production has continued uninterrupted, with reports of workers being pulled from the lines when their tests come back positive.

Shut until it’s safe – no loss of jobs or pay

Unite – the key trade union in the sector – has correctly called for temporary shutdowns of factories where clusters emerge, with jobs and pay guaranteed, in order to allow for full testing of the workforce and their families, as well as a deep clean of the workplace. Only then – and with robust health and safety measures and regular testing regimes in place – should production resume. Staff who need to shield because they or a member of their household are at particular risk from Covid-19 must also be guaranteed full pay.

However, these demands will not be met voluntarily by the bosses. Nor can we rely on the Stormont Executive to take the action necessary. The politicians have bent the knee to the demands of big business throughout this crisis and have a particularly close relationship with the agri-food industry, which is a dominant sector in the economy here.

Fight for workers’ control of health and safety

As across the economy, it is only action by workers which can ensure that public health is put before profit. Workers’ ability to disrupt production – and therefore profit – through strikes and other forms of industrial action are the most effective way of winning improvements in health and safety, as well as pay and other conditions. The small but important walkouts which have taken place so far are testament to this. Workers can use this power to win control over management of health and safety.

A weakness in the meat processing sector, like in many others, is the relatively low level of union membership and organisation. The Socialist Party encourages all workers to join a trade union to safeguard their rights at work, but also to become an activist in their workplace where possible. However, there is a responsibility on the trade union movement to make a particular effort to recruit and organise in the midst of this crisis. That requires demonstrating a fighting approach which can win victories, but also overcoming language difficulties and any other barriers to reaching immigrant workers, who are often among the most exploited.