Up to 40 meat plant workers are sharing accommodation in one part of the Midlands, a union representing employees in the sector has claimed.
SIPTU has suggested that workers living in "cramped accommodation" is an issue right across the food industry.
The union will address the Oireachtas COVID-19 committee this morning, with representatives from Meat Industry Ireland and the Health and Safety Authority also due to attend.
The special hearing is taking place after a recent spike in cases following outbreaks in meat processing plants.
Greg Ennis, SIPTU division organiser, told Newstalk Breakfast that his union feels the opportunity to address the Oireachtas is welcome but overdue.
He said: "We didn’t get [the opportunity] a month or so ago at the height of what was a crisis that some people had thought had gone away.
“We predicted if there was a resurgence of COVID in Ireland it would probably take place through the meat plants.
"It’s not because we had divine knowledge about this topic: it’s because it’s what has happened in Germany and the US.”
SIPTU has welcomed the announcement of ‘blanket testing’ of workers, but Mr Ennis said there's a need to go further.
He observed: "We need to ensure we have rapid testing with rapid results. Workers being tested in meat plants and waiting for four or five days for results… that’s simply not good enough now.
“In most towns around the country where meat plants prevail, there is a propensity of workers to share accommodation, particularly migrant workers.
“If the latest information I was given is reliable, and I have no reason to doubt it, there’s upwards of 40 people sharing a house in Co Offaly… well that is really disturbing information.
“Anecdotally, we’ve got information about this for a period of time, where workers are being forced into cramped accommodation, right across not just the meat industry but the food industry."
He said some workers have "little choice" but to live in such accommodation, as they're working for minimum wage or just above minimum wage with no sick pay.
Call for COVID compliance officers
Mr Ennis said there has been progress recently to address some of their concerns.
He said: “We’re getting to the Oireachtas today, which is good. We met with Meat Industry Ireland on Monday… it was a robust meeting, but it was constructive. And now we have the Government belatedly acting with regards to blanket testing in meat plants.
“Of paramount here is the safety of our members: the workers, the families and indeed the wider communities.
“We now have three counties in lockdown… we’re coming to a situation now where it’s a greater economic cost to those counties it is now than it is to put in place the necessary resources to deal with this problem."
The union representative also said there's now a need for COVID compliance officers for the sector, with the inspectors intentionally from the HSA.
He said it was a “staggering admission” in mid-May that inspections hadn’t been carried out in meat plants to that date.
He said: “As I’ve been saying since March, the meat plants are the perfect vectors for the transmission of COVID.
“It’s not just the close proximity working. There’s also the industrial sized air cooling systems: workers in a noisy environment are forced to shout, and those droplets are circulated throughout the plant. Then you have the terms & conditions with no sickness [pay].”
He said more enforcement is now needed to ensure guidelines are being followed in meat plants, and “unannounced inspections is where it’s at”.