Northern Ireland news

Unions clash with employers over staff safety

Moy Park's plant at Seagoe in Portdown, where workers walked out over safety concerns on Wednesday morning. Photo By Justin Kernoghan
Ryan McAleer

UNIONS have clashed with major employers over coronavirus prevention measures for staff, amid calls for a crackdown on companies forcing those in non-essential services to attend the workplace.

Dozens of workers walked out of food processing plants in Lurgan and Portadown yesterday morning, raising concerns over issues including social distancing.

The Unite union said 80 staff refused to work at ABP Meats in Lurgan for a period, while another 1,000 staged a walk-out at Moy Park’s Seagoe Operation.

The US-owned poultry giant later said just 100 people had walked out for a period of 15 minutes, before returning to work.

It came just a few days after the poultry group said it would need an additional 500 temporary workers to meet an upsurge in demand.

Sean McKeever from Unite claimed there had been a failure to provide basic health and safety protections.

"We need to see immediate movement from management to address the workers’ legitimate fears over coronavirus transmission,” he said.

In response, Moy Park said it had reviewed its sites and put new robust safety measures in place.

“We had already identified seven areas to enhance social distancing,” said a spokesperson.

“These measures include staggering breaks, respacing workstations and communal areas, as well as installing screens on appropriate production lines.

“We also continue to make provisions for those who can work from home to do so using remote technology as well as increased cleaning and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). We are continually reviewing the situation and taking additional steps where necessary.”

In a statement, the ABP Food Group said it had introduced a variety of additional measures at all sites in recent weeks.

"These measures include protocols around essential visitors, temperature checking, additional sanitising stations, staggered breaks, additional canteen spaces and many other robust protocols that are in place in food manufacturing facilities."

Owen Reidy, assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), said both sets of workers had the full support of the entire trade union movement.

“The production of food is an essential business and should continue, alongside those other designated services,” he said.

“However, these enterprises are not so essential that their continued operation is worth the health and even lives of their staff, and everyone those workers come into contact with. Social distancing is justified in parks and on the streets and the science does not change behind the windows of offices and factories.”

The ICTU has called for legislation and enforcement to ensure the safety of workers.

The Health and Safety Executive in Northern Ireland has said all employers should review risk assessments based on the most up to date information provided by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and take appropriate action.

The PHA in turn is directing businesses to Public Health England and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for advice.

That advice states that businesses and workplaces should encourage their employees to work at home, wherever possible.

But in terms of social distancing, it says that employers who have people in their offices or onsite should, where possible, maintain a two metre distance from others.

In a press conference yesterday, First Minister Arlene Foster said employers “must facilitate social distancing in the workplace” and provide appropriate protective equipment.

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