SIPTU has warned that the “arms of the State have a lot to answer for” in terms of the recent outbreaks in Irish meat factories.
Over 300 workers at four processing plants have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks.
The clusters have contributed to a worrying rise in the virus nationally – with a two-week lockdown imposed on Kildare, Laois and Offaly.
At a “frank and robust” meeting this afternoon, SIPTU presented Meat Industry Ireland (MII) with a charter outlining a range of measures necessary to keep workers safe.
Meanwhile, both sides agreed that a new system of rapid testing must be established for the industry and that there must be a major increase in unannounced inspections at meat plants.
They now hope to engage with the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to set the plans in motion.
On The Hard Shoulder this evening, SIPTU sector organiser Greg Ennis said 10% of workers in the industry have contracted the virus.
“They are part of what is a perfect storm for transmission of COVID,” he said.
“You have got close proximity; you have got the industrial cooling system spreading droplets and you have got noise pollution.”
He said unions have continuously warned officials about the issues facing meat plants.
“I wrote to the then-minister on April 3rd looking for a task force - because we had seen what had happened in Germany and the US - bringing everybody together on this,” he said. “We didn’t get it.”
“We looked for mandatory temperature testing – we didn’t get it.
“We made our submission to the Oireachtas Committee through ICTU because, unfortunately, we were not invited to address the committee, ironically because of social distancing.”
Mr Ennis said the meetings with the HSE and HSA now must happen as soon as possible.
“The arms of the State have a lot to answer for here,” he said. “I think they have to engage with us on this.”
“The Minister for Health the other night said he was giving his personal opinion on this, that and the other.
“That is not acceptable now, we need to be beyond all of that.”
The union leader said the only way to address the issues facing the industry is to improve working conditions and insisted the SIPTU worker’s charter is “paramount” for everyone involved.
“The litmus test, as I see it, will be when Meat Industry Ireland respond to us at our next meeting with regards to our charter because the terms and conditions are critical,” he said.
“You have got workers, predominantly on just above the minimum wage, nine out of ten with no sick pay, sharing accommodation, sharing rooms in that accommodation and car-pooling.”
He said worker’s lives outside of the factories are just as important as safety precautions inside.
“The only way we are going to deal with that is by bringing about a socio-economic change,” he said.
“We have to value what these people do. There is no point in having cheerleaders in the Government telling us this is an essential service. That essentiality must be reflected and recognised in the terms and conditions and we intend, on behalf of our members, to improve that for them.”