Warning on ‘high-risk nature’ of meatpacking after COVID-19 clusters emerge

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Meat industry seen as hot spot for COVID-19 transmission / Pic: GettyImages-industryview
Meat industry seen as hot spot for COVID-19 transmission / Pic: GettyImages-industryview

Related tags: COVID-19, coronavirus

Fresh warnings have been issued over the ‘high-risk nature’ of meat and poultry operations after news of fresh cases of COVID-19 – including one death - at meat companies in Northern Ireland emerged this week.

Union Unite has written to Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, to demand testing for workers as coronavirus clusters emerge in the poultry and meatpacking sector and one Moy Park employee dies.

‘Urgent action’ is needed from Stormont Executive to tackle the spread of coronavirus in the meat processing sector to avoid facing similar crises to those impacting meat processors in the US and Brazil, Unite insisted. The union said ‘if necessary’ processing sites should be ‘temporarily shut’ for testing or workers and family members.

Jackie Pollock, regional secretary for Unite, wrote:“It is now confirmed that a member of our union working in Moy Park in Dungannon died of COVID-19. It is right that we pay tribute to her memory and extend our condolences to her friends and family. We need to see immediate action in light of this news and the emerging COVID-19 clusters which are emerging at poultry and meatpacking sites.

“We cannot allow a crisis to develop in the sector such as has been witnessed in the USA where more than 10,000 workers have contracted the virus, with scores dead, or in Brazil where the number afflicted remains unknown due to the inadequacy of testing. We cannot allow political inaction to lead to a needless repetition of the COVID-19 crisis afflicting our care home sector."

‘High-risk’ in poultry and meatpacking

Pollock warned that the ‘high-risk nature’ of the poultry and meatpacking sector has been ‘widely recognised’. This, the union representative wrote, makes ‘all the worse’ the ‘abject failure to roll-out a comprehensive programme of testing’ for people working in this sector.

“The absence of extensive testing among all essential workers has been a key factor leading to this growing crisis, a crisis which is already spilling over into the local communities from which these workers come.

Unite argued that the current guidance and enforcement mechanisms designed to contain the spread of the virus are ‘clearly inadequate’ to preserve the health and safety of workers.

“While employers tell us that they are complying with the [government] guidance, workers are still contracting this virus. The current guidance and enforcement mechanisms are clearly inadequate to preserve the health and safety of workers; indeed their weakness effectively makes infection controls optional to employers.​”

Unite wants to see the introduction of mass testing and the establishment of a ‘sectoral taskforce’ to deal with workplace infection control in the poultry and meat processing sector.

“Measures must include, where necessary, the enforced temporary closure of sites with clusters for testing of workers and their family members, with workers provided full-pay compensation to stay at home and save lives before the results come back enabling reopening. Given the experience to date there must be a role in that process. There can be room for failure to act in the face of this threat to workers,”​ Pollock concluded.

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