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Meat factory labour problem requires ‘Guinness-style solution’

Independent.ie logo Independent.ie 14/12/2021 Hannah Quinn-Mulligan

Good Herdsmen Managing Director John Purcell has called for meat factory workers to be treated better as the “wheels would not turn” without non-nationals, which the sector is heavily reliant on.

Meat factories across Ireland and the UK have struggled to secure staff since the start of the pandemic, which saw many ravaged by outbreaks. The weekly letter from Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, to the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, shows outbreaks occurred in meat factories throughout the year, with several in recent months.

A freedom of information (FOI) request shows several factories had outbreaks where over 100 workers tested positive for the virus and a Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) report this year stated workers were three times more likely to catch the virus due to a number of issues, including ventilation.

Mr Purcell admitted the Good Herdsmen factory was currently experiencing a Covid outbreak that was “devastating” production. He said the situation was under control, but it had made him realise how dependent they were on foreign staff.

“We cannot get any Irish people to work as general operatives anymore — it’s not a criticism, it’s just the way things have gone,” Mr Purcell said on a recent ASA webinar.

When questioned by the ASA moderator, Odile Evans, on how potential staff could be recruited, Mr Purcell was blunt in stating that workers needed to be treated better.

“If you see what the Arthur Guinness estate did back in the 1700s and 1800s, funding hospitals and schools for their employees — I think we need to go back to that,” he said.

“They’re really on their own when they come here with little or no support and I’m disappointed about that.”

Mr Purcell said that more attention needed to be paid to helping workers with accommodation and healthcare.

Some 500 employment permits for meat deboners and 1,500 permits for meat operatives have recently been provided by the Department of Business.

However, Mr Purcell warned that if action wasn’t taken to take better care of workers, it could lead to issues further down the line for the sector.

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